04 September 2014

Three questions for:
Adam Harvey

Text: Susanne Heinlein

Modern technology means that our every step can now be monitored and watched. There are almost no controls over what happens to the data that we provide, often unknowingly and unintentionally. The New Yorker designer Adam Harvey designs products that protect their wearer from data collection through targeted „sabotage“. The Stealth Wear fashion line reduces detectability by thermal imaging cameras through the use of special insulating material, while the Off-Pocket interrupts all incoming and outgoing Smartphone signals, CV Dazzle interferes with facial recognition using hair and make-up elements, and the anti-paparazzi Camoflash handbag reflects flash light so strongly that photos are unusable. We talked to Harvey about his work.


1. Surveillance and data privacy are the central topics of all of your projects. Why are those subjects so important to you?


Surveillance is the vantage point of power. When we talk about surveillance and privacy, we are talking about power and power distributions. Privacy is interesting to me because it is a universal form of empowerment. Everyone wants and deserves privacy, but without it we are at a disadvantage. I'm concerned that we're building an environment where privacy becomes increasingly difficult. Advances in technology have made automated, networked surveillance easy and economic. The average cost to surveil a typical individual has been guessed between 13 US cents per day (Smári McCarthy) and 19 US cents per day (Julian Assange). At that rate, according to predictions by researcher Anders Sandberg from Oxford University the phenomenon of Total Surveillance (surveilling an entire population 24/7) is inevitable and economically feasible.


It's important to be aware of this future so we can prepare for it. I see privacy as form of savviness. When people say that privacy is dead I think they're just dead on the inside. Privacy is not dead. Naiveté is. Being knowledgeable about how your data is being used, who is looking, and knowing how to protect yourself is a form of savviness. That is not a message you'll hear from Facebook or Google because they have economic incentives to redefine privacy or just ignore it. The message in my work is that when you understand how your data is being used, how your privacy is being violated, or what surveillance looks like then you can begin adapting. I think people are extremely adept ad adapting to new environments and this new environment of mass surveillance will take time to adjust too. With this adaptation comes opportunities for reimagining the way we dress, communicate, and portray ourselves. On one hand surveillance is imposing and threatening. On the other hand, it is a set of constraints that can inform innovation in privacy.



2. Do you believe in a future where it is common to actively protect yourself against surveillance with products like Stealth Wear? Or is a change of the system that is behind it all what really needs to happen in the long-run? How will things evolve in your opinion?


I think we are heading towards a future where protecting oneself against surveillance is normal. Stealth Wear is a specialized solution for a certain type of surveillance: thermal imaging. CV Dazzle is also specialized. But another type of privacy protection, the Off Pocket, has already become practical and is a best seller at the Privacy Gift Shop. Of course, changes to policy would be more helpful. But I think we need markets for privacy technology, such as encrypted communications or faraday cage phone cases, to help accelerate those policy changes. 


3. What are you currently working on? What are your plans for the future?


Right now I'm working on a new project called the Surveillance Trend Report. This project is a trend forecast report for new surveillance technologies with recommended countersurveillance strategies, artworks, and products to improve privacy. I'm also working on a few new fashion items for the Privacy Gift Shop. And I hope to release both this fall.


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