Don’t look now, but your desk lamp may not be as harmless as you think. In fact, it might be recording your every word — and live tweeting it to the world, to boot. Ladies and gents, meet Conversnitch, the lamp that live tweets your private conversations for all the world to read.
The creation of Brian House and Kyle McDonald, the Conversnitch lamp is an ongoing experiment and art project geared towards examining the nature of public and private spaces in both the digital age and a post-Snowden world. “What does it mean to deploy one of these in a library, a public square, someone’s bedroom?” House asks in Wired. “What kind of power relationship does it set up? And what does this stream of tweets mean if it’s not set up by an artist, but by the U.S. government?” Thought-provoking questions indeed — and ones that are certainly worth examining.
House and McDonald built the device for less than $100 using a microphone, an LED, a plastic flower pot, and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer. It can be screwed into any standard bulb socket; once it’s been screwed in, it in turn draws its power from the lamp. From there, it uses the nearest open Wi-Fi network to upload captured audio to the Amazon crowd sourcing platform, Mechanical Turk. McDonald and House pay Mechanical Turk users small fees to transcribe and Tweet lines of the audio recorded by the device to the Conversnitch Twitter account. From what a video House and McDonald recently posted tells us, there are a number of Conversnitches currently set up in New York: One of them is in a McDonald’s; another, in a bank lobby; there’s one in a library and inside a lamp post in Washington Square Park; there’s even one in some unsuspecting person’s bedroom. The out-of-context quotes sound like an absurdist, existentialist drama that would be right at home in a play by Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter:
This isn’t the first time McDonald’s work has landed him in hot water; back in 2011, he installed a program on a bunch of Apple Store computers that automatically captured images of customers’ faces and uploaded them to his server. Apple, in turn, called the Secret Service; they obtained a search warrant for McDonald’s home and ended up confiscating two computers. McDonald himself penned a piece about the experience in 2012.
But House and McDonald’s Conversnitch may be the least of our surveillance problems. According to RYOT, the Los Angeles Police Department is currently testing out surveillance equipment that’s been called “a live version of Google Earth, only with Tivo-like capabilities”; cameras with the ability to read credit card information have been found directly above Metrocard vending machines in New York; and hackers have developed a drone helicopter that can pretend to be one of your phone’s previously accessed wireless networks, enabling them to access all the data saved on and transmitted from it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some paranoia to go wallow in...