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Tracking Hasan Elahi
Ethan Zuckerman, 19 Oct 06

Hasan Elahi is a conceptual artist whose life is an ongoing work about surveillance. He starts by telling us a chilling story - his detention by the INS at Detroit Airport after returning from a trip from overseas. An immigration officer scanned his passport and blanched, then led Alahi through a maze under the airport to an INS detention facility. As a US citizen, this was pretty odd - he tried to talk with the guards to figure out what was going on. But it all became clearer when the man from the FBI in the dark suit came to talk with him.

The FBI asked him about his whereabouts on September 12, 2001 - he was able to answer the questions by taking out his Blackberry and showing off his meetings. Over the course of questioning, it became clear that the reason he was being questioned was that he had a storage locker in Tampa, where he’d been teaching. Scared by 9/11, the owners of the storage area reported that “an Arab man had fled on 9/12, leaving explosives in his locker.” There were, of course, no explosives, and he hadn’t fled - just the detritus of ordinary life.

Elahi’s life for the next few months involved dozens of interviews with the FBI, finally culminating in nine back to back polygraphs, which finally “cleared” him. He explains that the power dynamic of an FBI interview leads to a very human response - the desire for survival. Elahi says that he could have questioned the legality of the experience, hiring a lawyer… but he realized that there was the possibility that any act of resistance could have gotten him sent to Guantanamo.

For the next few months, every trip Elahi took, he’d call his FBI agent and give the routing, so he didn’t get detained along the way. He realized, after a point - why just tell the FBI - why not tell everyone?

So he hacked his cellphone into a tracking bracelet which he wears on his ankle, reporting his movements on a map - log onto his site and you can see that he’s in Camden. But he’s gone further, trying to document his life in a series of photos: the airports he passes through, the meals he eats, the bathrooms he uses. The result is a photographic record of his daily life which would be very hard to falsify. We all know photos can be digitally altered… but altering as many photos as Elahi puts online would require a whole team trying to build this alternative path through the world.

Elahi also puts other apsects of his life online, including his banking records. This gives a record of his purchases, which complements the photographs. He doesn’t put the phone records online, because it would compromise the privacy of the people he talks with, and some friends have asked him to stop visiting, but he views the self-surveillance both as an art form and as his perpetual alibi for the next time the FBI questions him.

At the same time, he’s stretching the limits of surveillance systems, taking advantage of non-places. He flew to Singapore for four days and never left the airport, never clearing customs. For four days, he was noplace - he’d fallen off the map, which is precisely what the FBI and others worry about. But he documented every noodle and every toilet along the way.

One of the audience questions asks whether the FBI actually threatened Elahi with Guantanamo, or whether his “artistic temperment” might have exaggerated the seriousness of the situation. Elahi explains that it was never made concrete, but that he certainly felt the threat of indefinite detention, and that he believes the only thing that saved him was a common culture - the ability to quote the lyrics of country songs, or talk about college football, the sort of things a terrorist would find very hard to fake.

Another questioner wonders if Marianne Weems will make a show about Elahi - she mentions that an earlier piece, “Jet Lag”, tells the true story of a woman who flies from Amsterdam to NYC 167 times, again and again, until she dies of jetlag. (Still trying to find a reference to this story…) Given that Elahi’s life involves all the issues Weems is most interested in, she admits that a piece based on his experiences would be irresistable.

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Comments

Thanks for this, Ethan. It's fascinating how Elahi is turning the fear-stoked surveillance cultureback upon itself as a piece of performance art.

It's an inverse of "security theatre" -- the government's largely empty gestures and pointless actions that look like anti-terrorist measures, but really don't make anyone much safer than before. Elahi's work is more like theatrical security: gestures and actions that protect him from false accusations and possible, unjust imprisonment.

I really hope Marianne Weems will indeed do something with Elahi's story.

Is the only way to cope with invasive snooping by powerful gov't agencies be as transparent and revealing as possible -- to up the ante on what the world knows about our personal lives, until nearly nothing is personal anymore?


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 19 Oct 06

This reminds me of how simple it is to defeat ALL tracking measures. . . simply overwhelm them. For example, if we all decide (through an internet movement, say five million people) to pick up our phones ten times each day, place a call and say "nuke, bomb, zarqawi, osama, islam, kill the president" blah blah blah into the phone, the security devices that trace such utterances would be completely overwhelmed. Same thing with our emails. I'd like to see MILLIONS put these same words in the taglines of their email - it would render Big Brother email tracking absolutely worthless in just a few days as the massive amounts (billions) of flagged emails piled up in a matter of days.

Surveillance of the masses is not a problem if the masses choose to resist surveillance. Very, very simple to defeat. The problem is that we register little resistance.


Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 19 Oct 06

The ironic thing is that Elahi being able to track his movements so precisely probably made him more an object of suspicion.

(Do you know the FBI reaction?)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 19 Oct 06

Your article mentions "Jet Lag." I found this review in the New York Times of a theater piece from 2000. The piece combined the true stories of Sarah Krassnoff, who crossed the Atlantic more than 160 times in a custody dispute and died due to jet lag, with the story of Donald Crow, a sailor who went mad and committed suicide, after entering an around-the-world yacht race.

http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?_r=1&res=9406E4D7153AF937A25752C0A9669C8B63&oref=slogin


Posted by: JessicaR on 24 Oct 06

The post says: "... and that he believes the only thing that saved him was a common culture - the ability to quote the lyrics of country songs, or talk about college football, the sort of things a terrorist would find very hard to fake."

Why would a terrorist find that hard to fake? As London shows, people who explode themselves on subways can just as easily be born and raised in the same suburbs as the people they kill in their attack.

Knowing lyrics of country songs should really be no reason NOT to suspect someone. Examining the storage locker and taking popular hysteria into account, now, THAT might be a better reason to clear a person.


Posted by: denis bider on 27 Oct 06

What is so horrible is that storage facility that made those allegations did not get prosecuted for lying - or the very least get hit with a lawsuit.

There is no reason why they should be allowed to get away with that type of recklessness.


In New York City Sept 2001 an Arab man was falsely in accused by a Security Guard in the hotel accross the street from Ground Zero - and spent one year in detention - until the Guard ADMITTED that he misrepresented the facts to the FBI


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Posted by: PLANET FINANCE INTERNATIONAL on 31 Oct 06

The only way that citizens will be able to protect themselves will be to have fashionably small clip-on cameras (in combination with massive portable storage drives) documenting their entire lives. Changing the law process at the same time. Surprising or not, this will be the norm (more popular with the teens) soon...


Posted by: epoli on 4 Nov 06



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