Flipping the Script on the FBI With 45,000+ Pieces of Digital Art

yves“How do I not end up getting sent to Gitmo?” That was the question on the mind of Hasan Elahi, a Bangladesh-born artist and professor that was erroneously detained by the FBI after 9/11 and subsequently routinely monitored by the bureau.

The answer became an online art project and lifecast of sorts that started years before services to make such a thing relatively easy were readily available. Elahi shared his story earlier this week at TED Global in Edinburgh, Scotland and then sat down with Mashable to talk about the life he’s been living completely in the open since 2003.

“I was erroneously reported … it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity … it was a case of ignorance. But when your own country takes it on as a basis for national policy it’s a little bit scary,” says Elahi of his 2002 arrest at an airport in Detroit.

After months of regular phone calls and visits to an FBI office in Tampa Bay, Elahi started the site TrackingTransience, where in the years since he has broadcast and visually organized more than 45,000 images from his everyday life, most of which are uploaded in real-time using a smartphone camera. The site also includes a map pinpointing his current location. On the rationale for the site, Elahi told us, “It would be incredibly difficult to accuse me of something because I have this long paper trail.”trackingtranscience

Eventually, the calls and meetings stopped, but Elahi did see continual visits from the FBI, DHS, NSA and even the Executive Office of the President showing up in his website’s referral logs.

Now, Elahi thinks more about the impact that sharing vast amounts of data is having on our society (he’s also become Director of the Digital Cultures and Creativty Program at the University of Maryland). “I love the fact there are hundreds of millions of people doing the same thing I’m doing … That’s when art becomes daily life,” he said.

Elahi also ponders the meaning of the indefinite archive we’re all creating. “We’re in a situation where we no longer need to delete … data is so cheap that we have no reason to delete,” he said. “As we’re slowly externalizing our memory to these devices … it also means we never forget. So what does it mean to a society that no longer has a need to delete and everything is indexed?”

Had today’s social media ecosystem existed back in 2002, Elahi does think things may have unfolded a bit differently. Back then, he says, he’d call close friends before going in for an FBI meeting so people would know where to look for him if they didn’t hear from him. “Now I’d post ‘walking into FBI office’ [on Twitter] and it’d sort itself out,” he joked.

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