Ben Grosser, Scaremail

http://bengrosser.com/projects/scaremail/

 

Bio

Benjamin Grosser creates interactive experiences, machines, and systems that explore the cultural, social, and political implications of software. His works have been featured in Wired, The Guardian, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Neural, Rhizome, Creative Applications Network, Corriere della Sera, El Paîs, Der Spiegel, and The New Aesthetic. The Huffington Post said of his Interactive Robotic Painting Machine that "Grosser may have unknowingly birthed the apocalypse." The Chicago Tribune called him the "unrivaled king of ominous gibberish." Grosser's Facebook Demetricator was part of The Public Private at Parsons in New York curated by Christiane Paul, and his ScareMailwas part of PRISM Breakup at Eyebeam. His recognitions include awards from Terminal, Creative Divergents, and NASA. Grosser holds an MFA in new media and an MM in music composition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he now teaches in the School of Art & Design.

Description

ScareMail is a web browser extension that makes email "scary" in order to disrupt NSA surveillance. Extending Google's Gmail, the work adds to every new email's signature an algorithmically generated narrative containing a collection of probable NSA search terms. This "story" acts as a trap for NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, forcing them to look at nonsense. Each email's story is unique in an attempt to avoid automated filtering by NSA search systems.

One of the strategies used by the US National Security Agency's (NSA) email surveillance programs is the detection of predetermined keywords. Large collections of words have thus become codified as something to fear, as an indicator of intent. The result is a governmental surveillance machine run amok, algorithmically collecting and searching our digital communications in a futile effort to predict behaviors based on words in emails.

ScareMail proposes to disrupt the NSA's surveillance efforts by making NSA search results useless. Searching is about finding the needles in haystacks. By filling all email with "scary" words, ScareMail thwarts NSA search algorithms by overwhelming them with too many results. If every email contains the word "plot," or "facility," for example, then searching for those words becomes a fruitless exercise. A search that returns everything is a search that returns nothing of use.

The ability to use whatever words we want is one of our most basic freedoms, yet the NSA's growing surveillance of electronic speech threatens our first amendment rights. All ScareMail does is add words from the English language to emails written by users of the software. By doing so, ScareMail reveals one of the primary flaws of the NSA's surveillance efforts: words do not equal intent.

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Conference year: 
2014
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