[spectre] Loca film online and at Art.mov, Brazil

Drew Hemment drew at futuresonic.com
Wed Nov 21 01:51:26 CET 2007

Click here to view a documentary film of Loca: Set To Discoverable.

The premier of the completed film is now being exhibited in Brazil at  
Telemig Celular arte.mov, International Festival of Art and Mobile  
Media. Beta versions were shown at Mobile Nation (Toronto), Enter  
(Cambridge), Futuresonic (Manchester) and Urban Interface (Oslo).

Loca is an artist-led project on grass-roots, pervasive surveillance  
by John Evans (UK/Finland), Drew Hemment (UK), Theo Humphries (UK),  
Mike Raento (Finland).

Film produced by Drew Hemment.

Scroll down for an article on Loca: Set To Discoverable, soon to be  
published in Martin Rieser's Mobile Audience book.

Text by Drew Hemment, John Evans, Mika Raento, Theo Humphries


"In the inverted logic of the post-Orwellian city, Loca agents,  
software and human, decrypt the hertzian passages of its own  
inhabitants. For better or for worse?"
Steve Dietz, Artistic Director, ZeroOne

Loca: Set To Discoverable is an arts-based group project on grass- 
roots, pervasive surveillance which seeks to expose the disconnect  
between people and the trails of digital identities they leave  
behind. The premier full presentation at ISEA2006 and ZeroOne in  
August 2006 combined art installation, software engineering,  
activism, pervasive design, hardware hacking, SMS poetry, sticker art  
and ambient performance.

Loca is an exercise in everyday surveillance, tracking digital bodies  
in physical space. It examines what happens when it is easy for  
everyone to track everyone, when surveillance can be affected by  
consumer level technology within peer-to-peer networks without being  
routed through a central point. The Loca project walks the knife edge  
of locative media, itself involving surveillance. But it does not  
create a new surveillance potential, it only reveals what was already  

Pervasive surveillance is potentially both sinister and positive at  
the same time. New ways of organising media and of communicating with  
each other become possible when the context of the media and the user  
is known. But also as a consequence ever more can be surveilled and  
ultimately controlled. Loca seeks to lay bare the truth of mobile  
social software, to highlight how it can function as surveillance,  
without collapsing this ambiguity. It is an experiment that does not  
either blindly celebrate the technology, or claim that the technology  
is inherently bad. It aims to raise awareness of the networks we  
inhabit, to provoke people into questioning them, and help people  
equip themselves to deal with the ambiguity of pervasive media  


One element of Loca is a node network, through which Loca observes  
people’s movements by tracking the position of the Bluetooth enabled  
devices that they carry. One principle of the project is that people  
should be able to participate through their own mobile phone without  
their device needing to be modified in any way, either through  
installing Loca software or by altering settings.

Loca deploys a cluster of interconnected, self-sufficient Bluetooth  
nodes within inner city urban environments. In San Jose the nodes  
were encased in concrete and fixed to street lights in the park, at  
pedestrian crossings on road intersections, and buried in the earth  
by a popular bar terrace. Others were deployed in hotels, cafes, and  
popular destinations such as cinemas. They were hidden in flower  
pots, underneath a chaise longue, and in the foot of the podium used  
by the cinema ticket collector. The Loca team was constantly visible  
about the city centre in bright orange workman overalls, climbing  
ladders, in and out of hotels, deploying and maintaining the network.  
A production line was created to recharge spare car batteries, and  
constant maintenance was needed to replace batteries and reset the  

The Loca art group were then able to track and communicate with the  
residents of San Jose via their cellphone without their permission or  
knowledge, so long as they have a Bluetooth device set to  
discoverable. Over 7 days more than two thousand five hundred people  
were detected more than half a million (500,000) times, enabling the  
team to build up a detailed picture of their movements.

The Loca node network enables people to explore pervasive  
surveillance environments in a performative way. A person walking  
through the city centre hears a beep on their phone and glances at  
the screen. Instead of an SMS alert they see a message reading:

"We are currently experiencing difficulties monitoring your position:  
please wave your network device in the air."

Loca engages people by responding to urban semantics, the social  
meanings of particular places:

"You walked past a flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park, are  
you in love?"

People were sent messages from a stranger with intimate knowledge of  
their movements, written in such a way as to leave them unsure if  
they had not unwittingly joined a social network called Loca. Over  
the course of the week the tone of the messages changed, the all- 
knowing friend turning out to be one friend too many, "coffee later?"  
changing to "r u ignoring me?".

The purpose of the messages is to make the presence of the Loca  
network known, and to illustrate the types of data that can be  
gathered and the inferences that can be drawn from it. These messages  
could highlight people’s daily routines e.g. “You have been here for  
an hour”, reveal the ‘others’ within the network e.g. “You can be  
seen by 4 other devices”, or even be used to control people’s  
behaviour e.g. “Please wave your phone in the air”. The messages also  
made the Loca project accountable for what it had done, and provided  
channels for feedback and further enquiry.

Loca aims to lightly touch large numbers of people. The aim is not  
complex interaction, but subtle affect, and only a minority of people  
will receive it, let alone give it any more than passing thought.  
Loca is like a picture glanced at sideways, a message caught in the  
corner of the eye, or a mosquito swatted on the arm.

People who accepted the Bluetooth connection received a longer  
message which explained the background to the project, and gave  
directions to the Loca stand at the exhibition venue where people  
could scan their device and receive a personalised printout of their  
movements. At ZeroOne some individual logs were over 100 meters long.

As the first project of its kind, the system was fragile, and some  
higher levels of interactivity could not be achieved. None the less  
the system was operational for the full length of the exhibition,  
during which more than half a million data points were recorded.

Loca does not ask people in advance; it does not want their  
permission. Not to obtain people's permission was a difficult  
decision, but it was felt necessary for the validity of the project -  
which sets out to make visible the limits of what is technically,  
legally and ethically possible, and to put people's responses to  
pervasive surveillance environments at the centre of the debate.


A second element of Loca involves stickers. The experience of the  
node network is intangible, it is to do with what is not seen. The  
stickers make visible the traces of digital identities that people  
leave behind. The stickers are visible to all, not just to those with  
a Bluetooth device, making the pervasive surveillance transparent. At  
ISEA2006 trails of stickers appeared across down town San Jose.

The Loca stickers enable people to become Loca “agents”, playing on  
the double meaning of secret agent and software agent. They are able  
to act out one of the functions of the Loca network - to become a  
small piece of surveillance code - introducing an element of  
participatory, urban play.

People scan for Bluetooth devices using their own mobile phone or  
laptop, by using Bluetooth in the usual way. On the Loca stickers  
they record the name of any uniquely named device they detect, and  
the time and date of detection. The stickers can then be stuck at the  
point of detection to leave tangible evidence of the presence of the  
digital identity, the time at which it was detected and the detection  
event itself. The process is simple, and can be undertaken by anyone  
with a Bluetooth device.

An important question about 'responsibility' arises when individuals  
use their own name for the name of their device. The Loca node  
network does not publish any personal information. But a person's  
name written on the sticker is personal data. Is the 'publisher' of  
that information the user of the device, the person writing on the  
sticker, or the Loca team who produced the stickers for them to write  


On the final day of ZeroOne a node left in the downtown Sainte Claire  
Hotel was taken away by San Jose Police Department as a suspicious  
object and "booked in evidence". This took place on the same weekend  
in August 2006 that 3 Palestinian-Americans were arrested for  
possession of 1000 cellphones, which the authorities suspected were  
to be used for surveillance or as bomb detonators. Technology is  
often imprinted with our hopes and fears, and it says a lot about  
contemporary America that the SJPD chanced upon Loca’s genuine DIY  
surveillance, but it was the people with Arabic names who were  
detained. The police revised the status of the node from "Evidence"  
to "Found Property" and the artists were able to retrieve it,  
complete with a log of data on people's movements at the police  
station, whether they be officers, criminals or simply people passing  


All Loca code and tools are made publicly available in the form of  
the Loca Surveillance Pack. The Loca Pack provides for both  
surveillance and counter-surveillance. It makes Loca transparent,  
providing blueprints and code. It also informs people about the scale  
of the threat. Fear is used by politicians to create docile subjects.  
We want to show people that they can take back control.

Dont do harm to anyone. We will find you.


Loca was interested in people's responses. These varied across the  
different project presentations, which included San Jose plus earlier  
proof-of-concept presentations in Helsinki and London. Some learned  
for the first time through the project how Bluetooth functioned, and  
were compelled to switch their Bluetooth device to undiscoverable.  
Responses ranged from being intrigued, to shocked, to dismissive.

Previous projects on surveillance, such as ZKM's CTRL:SPACE  
exhibition, have highlighted how we today live between two polarities  
of scopophobia and scopophilia - fear of being observed mixed with a  
seemingly endless desire to reveal ourselves, as epitomised by both  
reality TV and social software. Loca found that these responses are  
often intertwined, and that locative media can inspire each in equal  

A discussion on Loca in Seoul, South Korea highlighted how debates on  
"privacy" can seem alien outside of Europe, and yet the issues of  
"disclosure" that Loca explores were found to be relevant to the  
participants in Asia, just framed in a different way. Most critical  
of Loca was Shami Chakrabati, Director of Liberty and one of the UK's  
leading civil liberties advocates, who discussing the project on BBC  
World Service's Digital Planet, was concerned about the distress it  
could have caused.


Loca is an anticipated accident. The project was initiated in 2003,  
out of an interest in how surveillance and social control emerge as a  
residue or unforeseen effect of otherwise virtuous information  
systems and network technologies. Then it sat in waiting for the  
accident to happen.

The accident was when the "Aware": http://aware.uiah.fi /  
"ContextPhone": http://www.cs.helsinki.fi/group/context/  
collaboration started generating surveillance data that was  
unforeseen by its designers. When users published media to Aware  
directly from their phone, using software called 'ContextPhone', it  
automatically annotated this media with contextual information  
derived from the phones actual surroundings, e.g. time, GSM cell-ID  
(an approximate geographical Locator), and the bluetooth environment,  
i.e. a list of the Bluetooth devices around at the time. The premise  
of Aware and ContextPhone (themselves developed by Loca participants)  
is that the social context of the media can be used both to situate  
the media and to help organise it. The Bluetooth information would  
allow queries like 'show me all the pictures captured when I was in  
the vicinity of that person', which would be useful in a wide variety  
of contexts - if, for example, someone wished to gain an overview on  
an event at which they were present. This contextual information  
leads to unforeseen consequences, such as the 'accidental' tracking  
of people present during the media arts festival ISEA2004 in  
Helsinki. If someone wanted to reproduce what Aware/ContextPhone had  
been found to do, but for commercial gain or unethical ends, how hard  
would it be to implement technically and legally?

Loca examines the surveillance potential of different consumer  
platforms. In San Jose it focused on Bluetooth for a number of  
reasons: because Bluetooth has been designed in a way that is  
problematic for privacy management; working with Bluetooth rather  
than GSM makes possible some independence from the mobile phone  
companies; and because Bluetooth is the first 'everyday' network  
technology that enables people to be tracked, and to track each  
other, within the physical environment. The privacy trade off found  
in many contemporary forms of surveillance (you need to incrementally  
give up ever more privacy in order to access new services) is common  
to all network technologies, but here it is not just data but also  
bodies in space that are being tracked. (WLAN is similar, but is not  
always on and is less mobile; GSM tracking remains largely the  
preserve of the mobile phone companies; RFID (at this time) is still  
not established in the consumer domain.)

Loca works independently from the mobile phone companies and other  
service providers so that it is clear to participants that Loca is  
not swayed by commercial interests in technology and also to show  
that the project can be done in a low-cost way. Each node is built  
using readily available, cheap parts, and is encased in concrete in  
order to be deployed in the urban environment. Loca does not need any  
special privileges nor to break the law - nothing stops one from  
Bluetooth scanning; in fact it is part of the protocol, whereas GSM  
is prohibited. All you need to participate - to watch or be watched -  
is a Bluetooth device.

An aim for Loca is to make people aware that they have agency, that  
they can avoid being tracked by turning off their device or switching  
their Bluetooth device to 'invisible'. But Loca also sets out to  
reveal the limit of this agency. With all technologies that are  
susceptible to pervasive surveillance techniques, the only way to opt- 
out of the surveillance is to switch off altogether, which is often  
impractical, and means losing the benefits of that technology. This  
was not inevitable, and we need to ask why these technologies are not  
privacy preserving: why, for example, do all network technologies use  
permanent unique IDs; who made those decisions, on what agenda, who  
has it benefited? Equally, computers that are invisible are bad for  
privacy: do you want the things that are tracking you to be hidden?  
Loca advocates the development of countermeasures and of better  
privacy management provisions in policies and protocols. An issue  
with Bluetooth is that Bluetooth scanning is anonymous. Should not  
the person or device doing the scanning have to provide their  
identity before they obtain the identity of the devices that they are  
scanning? Many such measures will involve a cost, so unless an  
argument is made and demand exists, then it will not happen. Loca  
highlights the asymmetry involved, the lack of reciprocity between  
the person scanning and the person scanned, and enables people to  
experience the unsettling distance between disclosure and connection.

Loca explores peer-to-peer surveillance, and yet, like many such  
projects, it is peer-to-peer only to a point. Surveillance data is  
generated independently on each node, but then that data is relayed  
between the nodes and a server via the GSM network. This does not  
compromise the principle, however. The surveillance is independent, a  
server is only used for convenience within this project as it  
simplifies implementation, and the data could be relayed between  
nodes in alternative ways, but with less mobility, or higher cost.  
This would lead to a new set of parameters, alternative questions,  
and a change in the nature of the project.

Locative Media is principally concerned with the context of location.  
Projects which can be labelled as 'Locative' use or create  
technologies that enable users to log and/or publish this contextual  
media. Users of such systems reveal personal information that is  
pertinent to the project, but importantly this information can be  
repurposed by third parties. In failing to address this issue many  
locative projects leave themselves open to criticism over the  
potential re-use of such personal information. The critical point is  
that such projects ask and/or require users to give up this  
information for a perceived benefit, but do not address the (often  
unforeseen) consequences of these actions - and the principle  
unforeseen consequence of Locative Media's demand for logging  
location and time is that it creates systems susceptible to various  
forms of surveillance.

Locative Media has yet to fully address its own critical context.  
Loca seeks to make a contribution to these debates, while at the same  
time critically assessing its own methodology and the risks of its  
approach. How can creative work with surveillance technologies add to  
or distract from traditional campaigning strategies? Does it risk  
getting the public used to a new control technology prior to its  
deployment in a coercive way? How may both positive and troubling  
sides of a new technology be simultaneously explored?

Loca asks: how do people respond to being tracked and observed? How  
ready are people to observe others? Who is the user, and how? What  
does it mean to participate in this project? Do we get fear of  
surveillance, disinterest, scopophobia or scopophilia? What kinds of  
behaviour is this technique suited to mapping, and what behaviours is  
it not suited to? What kinds of behaviour can evade this form of  
surveillance? How does the contextual information we can detect (such  
as Location, time spent in one place, etc) relate to people's  
everyday experiences of the environment? What happens in-between  
physical, embodied space and the digital space of abstract data? What  
is the relationship between the embodiment of the mobile user and the  
abstraction of the data we capture?

Pervasive surveillance has the potential to be both sinister and  
positive, at the same time. The intent of Loca is to equip people to  
deal with the ambiguity and to make informed decisions about the  
networks that they populate.


"LOCA ... is a surveillance project that talks back. A crew plans to  
plant some 30 Bluetooth scanners encased in concrete blocks at bus  
stations, in shops and at other busy spots in San Jose. Carrying a  
Bluetooth-discoverable phone within 25 feet of the scanners can  
trigger the receipt of a surprisingly intimate message like: 'You  
walked past the flower shop and spent 30 minutes in the park. Are you  
in love?' Such notes are not sent via text messaging but through a  
subversive technique called Bluejacking, in which a Bluetooth  
device's name is replaced with a short message meant to be picked up  
by neighboring devices. Part of the point is to catch people by  
surprise, jolting them out of their daily rituals with a Dada-worthy  
prank. Another goal, said Mr. Hemment ... is to show people how much  
data they may be revealing every time they turn on their phones. 'In  
an office you can shut the door for privacy,' Mr. Hemment said. ''In  
conversation you can hide a facial expression. But with the new  
digital technologies, you may have no idea how much you're giving  
away.'' If this sounds more like an educational project than a work  
of art, Mr. Hemment does not seem to mind. He said he doesn't make  
hard and fast distinctions between the two: he considers LOCA a  
policy-minded research effort with the art serving as its public face."
Jori Finkel, 'An Exhibition Where Paintings Are So Last Century', New  
York Times, August 6, 2006

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