Feds visit artist behind People Staring at Computers, confiscate laptops

One of the many images McDonald's app captured at NYC Apple stores

In yesterday's Bits, I linked up Brooklyn artist Kyle McDonald's project People Staring at Computers, in which he created an app that took snapshots, one every minute, of people shopping for computers at Apple stores in New York, and uploaded them to his site. His project description says the project is "exhibited on site with a remotely triggered app that displayed the photos full screen on every available computer."

Now it appears that project may be in jeopardy. On Twitter, McDonald reports that he received a visit from the Secret Service today and they took his laptop. "Please assume they're reading any emails you send me," he tweeted. The site, for now, is still up and running.

McDonald, whose work was featured in last month's Eyeo festival of digital art in Minneapolis, discussed the case a bit more on Twitter today:

Here's a video McDonald created about the project:

People Staring at Computers from Kyle McDonald on Vimeo.

Update: Before noting that the Secret Service took "two computers, an iPod and two flash drives, and told McDonald that Apple would contact him separately," Mashable describes how McDonald made it happen:
On three days in June, McDonald’s program documented people staring at computers in Apple stores. Since the stores wiped their computers every night, he had to go back in and reinstall the program each day he took photos. He uploaded a collection of the photos to a Tumblr blog, and last Sunday he set up “an exhibition” at the Apple stores. During the unauthorized event at the Apple stores on West 14th Street and in Soho, when people looked at an Apple store machine, they saw a picture of themselves. Then they saw photos of other people staring at computers. Amazingly, nobody made a fuss.


Over the course of the project, McDonald set up roughly 100 Apple store computers to call his servers every minute. That’s a lot of network traffic, and he learned that Apple monitors traffic in its stores when he received a photo from a Cupertino computer of what appeared to be an Apple technician. The technician had apparently traced the traffic to the site McDonald used to upload the program to Apple Store computers — and installed it himself.
Here's the U.S. code McDonald may be in violation of, entitled "Fraud and related activity in connection with computers."

Via Andy Gifford on Twitter.


Anonymous said...

This led me to wonder what a reasonable right to privacy is, while in public, and I found the following site, photorights.org, where they pretty much break it down: http://photorights.org/faq/is-it-legal-to-take-photos-of-people-without-asking

The very first sentences sum it up quite well: "In public places where there is no right to privacy, yes you can. The same applies in private places where you have the permission of the landowner or the landowner has stated no restrictions on photography."

1) Is an Apple store a public or a private place?
2) The photographer claims he got permission from the guard - who is likely NOT the landowner.

Regardless, I find the whole thing intensely creepy and a violation - perhaps not legally, but certainly ethically.

Mark said...

If he didn't get permission, what did he expect?

Taking photos of people unknowingly seems shady even if it's "JUST FOR ART." Don't think the secret service is needed, but police officers should have paid him a visit.

Paul Schmelzer said...

I think there are some interesting aspects to the work, but I also agree that there are good questions about privacy while in public and, more importantly, transmission of surreptitiously gotten images.

Not as creepy as this, though: Woman hides in the men's urinal, takes photo of guy peeing, then has her attorney argue she was in a "public" place.

Anonymous said...

An Apple store is a PRIVATE place. It is the very definition of private property, being owned or leased by Apple, which as we all know is a corporation, not a branch of the government.

And I doubt he got permission of the guard, as it is highly likely the guard had no idea what he was saying and was giving him permission to play with the computers.

Even if he did get permission of the guard, the guard is unlikely to be an Apple employee anyway. Not getting the permission of the manager of the store, whom we all know would have said "no", proves his intent to violate people's privacy.

I think government raids on people's computers are asinine, but this guy owes compensation to his victims.

Note his victims are the people whose pictures he took and the Apple company.... not "society".

Anonymous said...

umm... why on earth are the Secret Service involved? What does this have to do with protecting the president or conterfiet money?

Anonymous said...

A woman taking a photo of a guy peeing? That's no worse than upskirt.com and all the money made from photos looking up womens skirts

theiPatch dotCom said...

This app was installed without an Administrator account, yet it can control the webcam & upload images remotely.

How long until this app installs itself on to the laptop in your bedroom?