There exists an all-powerful, invisible force connecting us all. We cannot feel it, see it or touch it, but it virtually powers the modern world. Of course, we’re speaking of WiFi.
Wireless connectivity to the internet and compatible devices has made modern living a convenience, the likes of which primitive civilizations, as closely removed as those living in the 1990s, could have only dreamt of. The Internet of Things — as it is dubbed — connects not only our computers and televisions, but our coffee machines, toasters and homes to a virtual network via WiFi. On Saturday, Jan. 20, a pair of technology researchers visited Thousand Oaks to demonstrate just how inundated we are by wireless signals, and explored the potential downside to being so open.
WiFi and electronic omnipresence is part of “Strings: Data and the Self,” now through Sunday, April 15, at the California Museum of Art in Thousand Oaks.
Nick Briz and Brannon Dorsey are researchers working under Branger_Briz, a digital laboratory made up of artists, strategists, educators and programmers based out of Miami, Florida, Chicago, Illinois, and Cali, Columbia. On Saturday, the pair led a “WiFi Safari” through downtown Thousand Oaks to demonstrate to guests just how much invisible activity floats by unseen, minute-by-minute.
“This tech has become a part of every aspect of our life, but rarely do we understand how it works,” said Briz. “It’s not necessary to understand how to use it, but it is necessary to have a political conversation about it.”
In particular, Briz references the politics of data, with special consideration for privacy. During the Safari, guests watched as the duo’s computer with a specially-designed antenna captured WiFi signals sent from cellphones, home networks and businesses. Briz and Dorsey’s custom program displays these signals as if they were butterflies flittering around hubs displayed as flowers, where they eventually land to connect to devices or the Internet.
The custom program can show the meta-data carried by these signals as well, which can include the devices they are connected to, using what are known as “probe requests.” These requests allow a device to auto-connect to familiar networks, such as at home or work. With that data, anyone with the know-how can find out a lot about the user.
“If we see a device probing for a home network or work network, we match that data with crowdsourced geotagged wireless data and build maps about where perhaps the owner of that device spends in the world,” said Briz.
For this reason, Briz and Dorsey say that people should be aware of how their data is used and captured in the so-called “wild.”
“There’s plenty of research out there to show that companies are doing this in the wild,” said Dorsey, alluding to the military as a prime example, the city of London’s attempts to determine how people move about within the city via data collection points set inside of trashcans, and even department stores that use the data to determine how much time a shopper spends in a particular aisle. If all of this sounds intrusive, Briz says that a better word to use would be “pervasive.”
“This is happening everywhere and it’s a bigger issue that things are happening without our awareness,” said Briz. “Without that awareness we can’t have a conversation about it, and if we don’t have a conversation, companies are more comfortable with pushing the envelope of how that data can be used.”
Briz and Dorsey’s interactive WiFi installation will be on display at The California Museum of Art’s “Strings: Data and the Self” exhibit, now through Sunday, April 15, at 1948 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. For more information, visit www.cmato.org. For more information on Branger_Briz, visit www.brangerbriz.com, and for more information on the duo’s project, visit www.probekit.brangerbriz.com.