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How to Become a Bounty Hunter



Artist Offers Whole Life’s Details to FBI, Public

By Danny Fenster
ticklethewire.com

When Hasan M. Elahi landed in Detroit, Mich., and walked into the country on June 19, 2002, a customs official asked that Elahi follow him to an Immigration and Naturalization Services office at the airport.

That incident initiated a period of “questioning went on for the next six months and ended with a series of polygraph examinations,” Elahi wrote in the New York Times on Sunday, and it “turned my life upside down,” he said.

Elahi, an associate professor and interdisciplinary artist at the University of Maryland,  describes himself as neurotic about record keeping, and in the office at the airport he and the investigator were able to look at his electronic personal assistant and retrace the steps he took on September 12, 2001, he wrote in the Times. Seeming pleased, the interrogator let Elahi go. But Elahi was soon contacted by federal authorities for more questioning.

The level of detailed information he began sharing with the FBI in the months following inspired a project Elahi pursued on his own websites. Elahi was nervous about the FBI’s interest in him and wanted to cooperate in letting them know all of his travel plans and whereabouts. When an interrogator finally cleared him and said for Elahi to let them know if he needed anything, Elahi-not wanting another hassle upon his return-sent agents his plans for traveling outside of the country in the near future, he wrote.

But Elahi piled the information high. “Soon I began to e-mail the F.B.I. I started to send longer e-mails, with pictures, and then with links to Web sites I made. I wrote some clunky code for my phone back in 2003 and turned it into a tracking device … I created a list of every flight I’ve ever been on, since birth. For the more recent flights, I noted the exact flight numbers, recorded in my frequent flier accounts, and also photographs of the meals that I ate on each flight, as well as photos of each knife provided by each airline on each flight.”

On his own websites, which he sent links to federal agents to, he included databases of his personal financial records, his daily habits and whereabouts, pictures he had taken.

Elahi wrote in the Times: “In an era in which everything is archived and tracked, the best way to maintain privacy may be to give it up. Information agencies operate in an industry that values data. Restricted access to information is what makes it valuable. If I cut out the middleman and flood the market with my information, the intelligence the F.B.I. has on me will be of no value.”

Elahi went further. The actions may be more symbolic than anything, he admitted, “but if 300 million people started sending private information to federal agents, the government would need to hire as many as another 300 million people, possibly more, to keep up with the information and we’d have to redesign our entire intelligence system.” He derided the current intelligence system as stuck in a Cold War mentality, and encouraged the many “incredibly intelligent people and very sophisticated computer systems in various agencies in Washington” to move beyond a 20th century mentality and start creating better ways to use and analyze information, rather than endlessly collect it.

Whether the project seems a poignant response to his experience, or just the overly academic philosophizing of an abstract University artist, questions about responding to and dealing with the flood of information federal agents face is something to be pondered. “What I’m doing is no longer just an art project; creating our own archives has become so commonplace that we’re all — or at least hundreds of millions of us — doing it all the time. Whether we know it or not,” Elahi wrote.

 


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