Artist Kyle McDonald installed a program on the computers in two New York Apple Store locations that automatically takes a photo every minute. Now his personal computers have been confiscated by the U.S. secret service.
McDonald’s project was to capture people’s expressions as they stare at computers, a subject he had first explored in a recording he made of his own computer time over two days using the same program.
“I thought maybe we could see ourselves doing this we would think more about our computers and how we’re using them,” he says.
On three days in June, McDonald’s program documented people staring at computers in Apple stores. Since the stores wiped their computers every night, he had to go back in and reinstall the program each day he took photos. He uploaded a collection of the photos to a Tumblr blog, and last Sunday he set up “an exhibition” at the Apple stores. During the unauthorized event at the Apple stores on West 14th Street and in Soho, when people looked at an Apple store machine, they saw a picture of themselves. Then they saw photos of other people staring at computers. Amazingly, nobody made a fuss.
“We have this expression on our face [when we use computers] that basically says that we’re not interacting with anybody, we’re interacting with the machine,” the 25-year-old Brooklyn resident says. “Even if there are a lot of people in the room at the Apple store, you’re not interacting with them. If something weird happens, you don’t say ‘hey, did you see that?’”
Over the course of the project, McDonald rigged roughly 100 Apple store computers to call his servers every minute. That’s a lot of network traffic, and he learned that Apple monitors traffic in its stores when he received a photo of a computer technician at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters. The technician had traced the traffic to the site McDonald used to upload the program to Apple Store computers — and installed it himself.
McDonald figured that Apple had decided the program wasn’t a big deal. That was until four Secret Service men in suits woke him up on Thursday morning with a search warrant for computer fraud. They confiscated two computers, an iPod and two flash drives, and told McDonald that Apple would contact him separately.
McDonald, who has a master’s degree in electronic arts, admits the project might make some people uncomfortable. Before he began, he got permission from Apple’s security guards to take photos in the store, then asked customers if he could take their photos. Had they all said no, he says, he wouldn’t have proceeded. He also refrained from putting the code for the photo-taking program online, as he does with most of his projects, because he recognized that the technology behind his art project could be used for less benign purposes. If someone sees themselves in his collection and wants to be removed, he will remove them.
The larger question is whether he violated any laws. McDonald doesn’t believe he has.
“My main thought is that I’d rather spend my time and money making new work rather than dealing with a computer fraud investigation,” he says.
He’ll also need to purchase a new computer, which he wasn’t planning on. “Hopefully they let me into the Apple Store,” he says.