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When Art, Apple and the Secret Service Collide: 'People Staring at Computers' (wired.com)
213 points by ajdecon on July 12, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 64 comments

I never really understood why Kyle was so confused about the negative reactions. For someone who tried to be so in tune with people's feelings, he seemed to be missing something incredibly obvious: violation of expectation.

Yes, when you're in public you have no legal expectation of privacy. However, when you're using a computer at an Apple store, you're also not expecting that the webcam is snapping photos of you that will be posted online.

What he misses entirely is that what constitutes "legal" is not entirely congruent with social norms. Especially as it relates to what will happen to us in public. Legality defines the hard boundaries of our social expectations. We normally set those boundaries at a point where someone is "harmed". The broad social contract is that we won't trample all over each other, physically or emotionally, so we establish laws at the boundaries. Cross the boundary and you face punishment.

For example, it's not illegal to take photos of people on the street, yet US society has a love-hate relationship with the paparazzi. They're not breaking the law, but there are plenty of people who... uh... strongly dislike them. Kyle crossed over in to the same territory. Not illegal, but definitely hanging out on the fringes of socially acceptably behavior.

Yeah, Kyle seems to be missing some sort of social intelligence that most people possess -- or maybe career incentives make him choose to ignore or rationalize away what his social intelligence is telling him about how people are going to react.

EDIT: removed sentence that probably overstepped HN norms around meanness.

[edit: retracted as per parent request]

You're right. Offending sentence deleted from grandparent.

Although I understand that you are under no social or ethical obligation to do so, I would appreciate your deleting your quote of the sentence.

No different than if he had walked into the store, stood across the table from someone looking at a computer, and stared into their eyes.

That would freak most people out. There would be complaints, and he'd be escorted out & told to not return.

Legal? yes, but only because we'd rather not have laws applying the police power of the state against nigh unto every conceivable human interaction however defined.

Not only is that not "no different", it's not even close. Nobody expects that if you stare at them, photos of them will start appearing on a web server as part of an art exhibition (or in any tangible form other than a person's memory, for that matter).

Fine. "no less" than, in answer to those (him) trying to spin it as something perfectly legal/acceptable which nobody should be concerned/outraged/surprised about. If staring at strangers in stores will get you thrown off the premises, how much more so when staring at thousands of strangers and publishing their reactions?

They will, once (if?) google goggles gets off the ground.

Last I heard computer intrusion was felony with broad conditions that can be met fairly easily - when you use a computer without permission or when you overstep the implicit or explicit permission you have to use said computer (apologies if I'm wrong but didn't he install his app without explicit permission?).

Thus I wouldn't be at all certain that the artist here hasn't gone over the lines of legality.

I'm hardly a fan of Apple policies in general but it seems to me that here that sending the Secret Service after this guy is a both legal and appropriate act.

I disagree with the parent's claim that legal boundaries are the hard boundaries. Many legal boundaries are extraordinarily fuzzy, often to the detriment of civil liberties ("disorderly conduct" is a real crime for example). Oddly enough, here is a situation where a somewhat fuzzy law seems somewhat appropriate.

My understanding was that he got permission from an employee of the store to install the app, and explained what it was for as well.

I reread the article before posting.

I believe he only mentions getting permission to photograph. It seems that he took at as a permission to install an app that would photograph. Maybe there was something I missed. If so, show me a quote.

Agreed. I doubt he was seriously confused about people's expectations. It seems like he's just trying to act innocent after the fact. "Oh I asked permission to do something tangentially related to my project and parts of the project might have even been legal!"

Or maybe I'm wrong and after years of relinquishing your own privacy, you simply have no respect for the privacy of others.

His lengthy post doesn't mention asking permission to install the app or explaining what it was for to a store employee. Where does your understanding come from?

when you're using a computer at an Apple store, you're also not expecting that the webcam is snapping photos of you that will be posted online

Really?? Over the years, I've become conditioned to assume that if I see any kind of camera lens pointing in my general direction, I am being recorded and that data is going somewhere.

I think what's not congruent with social norms is that people still assume that cameras are turned off and aren't recording them & being saved somewhere.

I also don't think we're done discussing this topic.. when people start wearing Google glasses everywhere, will everyone finally admit to themselves that they are being recorded almost all the time?

> I think what's not congruent with social norms is that people still assume that cameras are turned off and aren't recording them & being saved somewhere.

No, people assume that security cameras will be used for their intended purpose. Our expectations are guided by context. The camera is the tip of the iceberg. Behind it is a whole set of intentions. What it will record, who will view it, and what will be done with that recording. The fact that it's a security camera provides implied answers to all of the "what, who, why" questions.

The rules of these contexts aren't written down in any rule book, because if we did that, we'd spend our whole lives writing out rule books rather than living.

I'm not suggesting that what Kyle did should be illegal. No one was harmed. Some people might have felt uncomfortable, but no one was harmed.

I am saying that we should be free to dislike him for it. He won't be harmed, but it might make him feel a little uncomfortable. Then again, maybe it won't.

I understand. I guess I feel that I can't tell which cameras are security cameras anymore. Do they have to be mounted on a ceiling in a corner with a tinted dome? EDIT: If I install Prey on my PC, does my PC camera then qualify as a security camera?

Some people might have felt uncomfortable

Art is supposed to provoke an emotional response, be it positive or negative. I love it when people walk up to a painting a say something like "This painting looks very angry. I don't like it at all." That's exactly what art is about and only people who are comfortable with being uncomfortable will fully appreciate it.

> I guess I feel that I can't tell which cameras are security cameras anymore.

Do you really expect that any camera put up in public is taking your picture to be posted on a website somewhere as part of an exhibit?

As hackers and engineers, we live in a world of specifications, rules, and absolutes. Most people aren't like us. You can't nail down the exact line between "right and wrong", because there is no exact line. It's a moving target, but asking whether something is right or wrong is asking the wrong question. Instead, ask yourself how your actions will make the other person feel. If you suspect it will make them uncomfortable, then ask yourself if it's worth it.

Be honest with yourself about it. Kyle knew something was up, because he felt the need to conceal his actions. Maybe he still would have gone ahead with the project, but he seems unwilling to admit that what he was doing was in any kind of gray area.

> Art is supposed to provoke an emotional response, be it positive or negative. I love it when people walk up to a painting a say something like "This painting looks very angry. I don't like it at all." That's exactly what art is about and only people who are comfortable with being uncomfortable will fully appreciate it.

Sure. Personally, I found Kyle's project deeply interesting. I was drawn to the idea like the scent of BBQ on the grill (mmmm, BBQ), because I love to "feel". I don't mean to judge him or his project. I don't even mean to say that I think he shouldn't have done it. I just think that we should be aware of the difference between a painting that is offensive to those who choose to see it and commandeering someone's privacy in the name of art.

There's a vitally important distinction here though. If I walk up to a painting and say I don't like it, I've voluntarily subjected myself to that uncomfortable experience. Heck, I've probably deliberately walked into a venue whose express purpose is for showcasing the art (e.g. a gallery, or an art museum).

But in this case people are being made uncomfortable against their will. And that's not ok.

Though as was noted, we subconsciously KNOW we are being recorded by security cameras. Where is the difference?

I find the project to be unsettling and interesting at the same time. It is interesting to be able to turn the recording results back over to the public and draw some conclusions from them.

For instance, there was a comment worrying about "the computer" de-socializing us as a species. It seems to me that a "stone face" is just the default expression when we are not directly conveying non-verbal information. How often do you think you make faces during deep sleep?

Do people normally smile at things they are considering buying? This is a genuine question. I can't remember smiling at an inanimate object i was thinking of purchasing. That being said, i DO smile and laugh or cringe at times while reading a book on a computer, or watching a video, so maybe there ARE times?

> Though as was noted, we subconsciously KNOW we are being recorded by security cameras. Where is the difference?


I expect that security cameras record me.

I do not expect that the recordings will be posted on the internet.

I do expect that whoever is recording them will take some reasonable measures to secure their contents.

Those are just my expectations. There's no law against violating these expectations, but can't we all agree that the world is a more pleasant place when we respect others' expectations and avoid trampling on them where possible?

I expect that security cameras record me.

I do not expect that the recordings will be posted on the internet.

Unfortunately, reality is messy and your expectations are somewhat obsolete on this one.


My expectations are not obsolete. There's a big difference between public web cams, in-store security cameras, and the web cam on a MacBook at an Apple Store.

This is a really good illustration of just how out of touch hackers can be. Just because you found what you believe to be an exception does not mean that everyone's expectations are invalid.

The private panopticon is already here and it is leaking into the public one rather quickly.

I bounce back and forth on this line thinking that Kyle, while not aware of his social abnormalities, is helping or hurting society. By having someone look at "us" all differently he sheds an interesting light on the individual, but it also is unnerving and crosses boundaries that we would never have thought someone could so easily broach. It is one of the problems with being too close to any subject you're working with (art, a patient, a paper, a project): you get desensitized to anything odd about 'it', but others are just experiencing the phenomena for the first time.

"For example, it's not illegal to take photos of people on the street, yet US society has a love-hate relationship with the paparazzi. They're not breaking the law, but there are plenty of people who... uh... strongly dislike them. Kyle crossed over in to the same territory."

I think the motivations are different here, although the acts are similar the reasons are not.

All the new traffic lights in our area have webcams pointed directly into the windshield of drivers stopped for the light. To what end, I don't know. But drivers on their way to the Apple store don't seem to mind their pictures being taken.

It seems Kyle's mistake was in publishing the results of surveillance. We don't care if we are watched, because we don't have to form a belief in the reality of the images stored. We do care if we see ourselves published, because that makes the reality of being watched undeniable.

Consider for comparison the TSA body scanner images being seen to be seen by agents at the scanner, versus not seen being seen by agents in a room. Passengers were not ok with the first, but ok with the second.

These examples offer a roadmap to a happily ignored surveillance society.

"All the new traffic lights in our area have webcams pointed directly into the windshield of drivers stopped for the light. To what end, I don't know"

They could be webcams but the more common explanation is that they are visual sensors to detect cars in the turning lane, replacing the old wire loops in the pavement:


They are not just to detect cars in the turning lanes but to detect whether cars are waiting for the light, and how long the queue is. This (supposedly) helps optimize traffic flow. I have my doubts as to whether it works any better than fixed timers. The claim that they are cheaper and easier to maintain than in-ground wire loops does seem believable.

It works better during off hours when there is little traffic.

Your explanation makes sense given most of the lights in question, but some have no turning lanes, such as at crosswalks. Perhaps bureaucracy has them required at all new lights regardless. Either way, government at work. :)

// Cool link, thanks. Shared with cyclist friends.

Well, some are pointed at the driver. Sometimes with interesting results...


I thought that was part of the red-light camera system. If you run a red light, it's not enough to have just a license plate, they have to prove that it was actually you driving the car.

Red light camera infractions are civil fines against the owner of the vehicle, not moving violations against the driver.

That is not correct, at least in the US. In many states it's the driver and not the owner who is liable.


Are you sure that's true in every jurisdiction?

OK, I didn't know that. So in crime shows, where do the pictures of people in their cars come from (supposedly)? Speed traps or something?

What if your gets stolen? I would hope that the jurisdictions would have that as a valid defence.

The red-light camera systems in place near where I live have the camera built into the red light it self. The little web cams up on top where added later, and are on more lights than the camera enforced lights.

What was he expecting? Surely he must have realized that Apple would be upset that he secretly installed software on their computers to spy on their employees and customers. Surely he must have understood that many of his subjects would be weird-ed out as well. I don't understand what he thought would happen. He doesn't seem to have any empathy at all. Hopefully this encounter has woken him up a little.

It's pretty clear why Kyle hasn't anticipated this kind of reaction to his project. After exposing his whole life online during his previous projects, he obviously lost kind of sensitivity most people have about their own privacy. He studied some laws and rules and decided it's OK, but it would be better if he asked some of his non privacy-stunt-artist friends what do they think about his idea. His story nicely shows how our ideas of ethics are influenced by our own personality and behavior, not just out environment.

Good read. My biggest question is why didn't the artist just ask the apple store if it would be ok to install an app that took photos instead of asking if it would be ok to take photos? My guess is he knew they would say no, but I could be wrong. There is two sides to every story, but Apple doesn't come out smelling very good here.

I once walked into a semi-fast food restaurant and kindly asked if I could take a photo of their menu board. The employee said 'no' with no additional explanation given. Ever since then, I've taken similar photos -without asking- and no one has ever questioned me. It seems like the phrase, it's better to ask for forgiveness, applies to the situation.

I feel that when you ask an employee for permission, they automatically assume that you are up to something negative. They are usually not in a position of authority to grant you access to anything anyway. Now that you asked for their permission, they feel like they are personally responsible for whatever you do with the photos. The easiest way for them to CYA is for them to say "no."

I agree that is it usually the path of least resistance but "Ask for forgiveness" is much harder when you are having to ask forgiveness from high priced corporate legal rottweilers and the secret service who want to nail you to a wall.

For things like restaurant menu boards I wouldn't be worried. Installing apps on computers I do not own (and owned by a very large corporation) without explicit permission? Not so much

But what constitutes installing an app? If I sit there at a python prompt, is that "Installing an app"? If I write some applescript there and then, is that "Installing an app"? If I grab something for free from the Mac App store, is that "Installing an app"? Every one of those is a just and reasonable thing to do.

I'd even say the most clear definition, Downloading an app from an external website and executing it, is pretty clearly in the allowed list - These machines exist to demonstrate Apple computers, and Installing an app is a not entirely unheard of action after purchasing. There's a reasonable expectation that Apple could prevent it if they wanted, and that the 'harm' done to them is virtually zero - They re-image their machines all the time. So where is the boundary?

Obviously, in this case, it's where people started feeling creeped out by it... but this was by no means a secret service investigation. This was a high-school level prank, and it saddens me that we live in a world where people would take enough offense - where people are so mistrustful of one another - where people are so litigious, that federal law enforcement is called in after such.

You are correct, defining it in a manner acceptable to legal types would be very very hard.

However the fact that he felt he needed to hide what he was doing by using tumblr etc makes me feel that he knew there was a line (however blurry it might be) and that he was crossing it.

This one sentence really changed my perception of his story:

"Sometimes I would open another tab and load Flickr or Open Processing so I had an excuse if someone asked why I was comparing every single computer."

If he truly thought what he was doing was legal (or morally right), he wouldn't have had to do this. Instead, he chose to hide the fact he was installing software on Apple's computers.

I think what Apple did was right. They used the USC to take down images of people that were taken in an Apple store by Apple computers. If someone saw their image on his blog/project/whatever and was upset about it, they would go after Apple and not the artist. So they were covering their own butts. At the same time, they know he found a flaw and there was no damage done. Therefore, no reason to seek further prosecution.

My biggest surprise is that nobody at the Apple store noticed that the camera lights were on for all (most?) of the computers in the store... wouldn't that be kind of obvious?

Is it possible to have the built in camera record without having the green recording indicator lid up? With or without modifying the device driver for the camera?

I believe that it depends on the model, but after some of the early trojans figured out how to do this years ago, the light is now hardware-wired in some webcams.


They could have just assumed someone's been leaving PhotoBooth running.

Somebody's a total jackass (and obviously hasn't watched the Don't Talk To The Police video).


Interested in another of Kyle's wacky projects (mentioned in the article)? Check out the year of his life where he logged ever single keystroke on his computer to Twitter. Yep...all of it.


almost all. big difference. but yea, great project.

Some of the things Kyle said and quoted seem relevant to an earlier HN discussion [1] titled I don't "get" art


The Book of Tea[2]... requires a mutual understanding between the artist and the spectator:

> The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message, as the artist must know how to impart it.

And the success of “People Staring at Computers” is based on condemnation rather than mutual concession. In a way, inviting condemnation can be the most effective way of imparting a message.

I think Duchamp understood the possibilities of condemnation as an alternative to mutual concession. He addresses this in his short essay, “The Creative Act“ [3]. He says once an artist gives their work to the spectator, it’s up to the spectator to make a decision about that work.


Had this article come out at the same time, I think that discussion would have gone better.

[1] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4124275

[2] http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/tea.htm

[3] http://www.iaaa.nl/cursusAA&AI/duchamp.html

Reminds me of Walker Evans


Evans organised publication of the images in book form, which I suppose would render the publisher liable if any of the passengers wanted to seek any form of redress (they did not).

In this case, Apple was the unwitting publisher with no editorial involvement, hence the action seems reasonable.

Great article. I never thought about how much time I spend expressionless in front of the computer before.

Maybe I'll add a mirror to my desk to make faces in throughout the day.

Why? There is no reason to make faces if nobody sees them. Unless you think your face muscles get weaker?

If Kyle is being honest in this article he is a sociopath, no question about it. He obviously has major problems understanding social norms.

The melancholic nature of the article and the easy going attitude of the author really made the article different and original for me. I really liked reading and thinking about the points raised in it. But really, all it was, was revealing the one obvious aspect of human nature: how we react to objects. Here its a computer.

When someone had your password, it’s not just that they could access any information, but that they could become you.

When people send you an email, there is an expectation of privacy.

But most of the emails were from reporters and journalists. I wrote a form response and started replying to everyone, letting them know the EFF had encouraged me not to talk about it. This was a really difficult moment. I felt like everything was arranged in a way to keep discussion limited, to keep people working against each other instead of working together.

Hundreds and hundreds of comments, on dozens of major blogs. I’m no stranger to publicity, but this was on a completely different scale. Everyone had an opinion and wanted to argue with each other. Yet I had to remain completely silent.

The above quotes when left to ponder are really profound. Pointing the easy to notice things are indeed the easy to ignore.

In the other comments, I started to notice a trend: people were trying to establish definitions. They were arguing about ethics and ontology (even though no one called it that). The project hit a nerve that made people uncomfortable enough that they had to share their opinions and argue their positions. If you’re at school studying art, philosophy, or politics, this isn’t a big deal. These discussions happen over lunch, or in the hallways. But this was happening on the internet.

Everything and anything happens on the internet, and if there is no identity attached to the actions, the truer they become of the person, than in real life where people are bound to act by social commonsense.

With “People Staring at Computers,” I saw something new: a massive audience engaged in a collective decision-making about the culture they wanted to adopt, in realtime, via comment threads strewn across blog posts and news articles

Its not new. It started right when internet started. If some other way to mass communicate was possible before, it would have started then as well.

If he thought what he was doing was 'right' (and that it was unreasonable for apple to send the secret service after him) why did he buy a new laptop from apple? That part to me seems the most insane.

That's honestly something you will only understand after having used a macbook for some while. There's tons of stuff Apple does that annoy me, especially what comes out of their legal team. I always check out the new gear from other manufacturers. Nothing quite cuts it. Of course this is all subjective and depends on the characteristics about a laptop you value most. If it's pure performance or repairability they aren't right for you.

No offense, but this author is an idiot. He should've given them nothing, and said nothing, and requested a lawyer. He did exactly what the secret service wanted him to do: to feel intimidated, scared, and willing to talk, since he's innocent, right? That is precisely what they want you to do. Next time, say nothing and request a lawyer.

how would that have ended up better than the outcome described here?

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