For the number of waking hours we spend across from a computer screen, it’s not something most people give much thought to. Brooklyn-based artist Kyle McDonald set about to change that by documenting the phenomenon of “how we stare at computers and how our computers stare back at us.” So how did the Secret Service get involved?
Mr. McDonald’s project started innocently enough. He installed a program on his laptop to capture his expression every minute over two days of peering into the monitor. The problem started when Mr. McDonald, who has a masters degree in electronic arts, took his project to the streets of New York and decided to install the same program on computers in various Apple stores.
Over the course of three days in June, roughly 100 Apple store computers snapped thousands of pictures of customers’ seemingly-inert faces staring at screens. All the images were sent back to Mr. McDonald’s server.
Since Apple stores wipe their computers every night, each day Mr. McDonald had to go back and reinstall the program. He had no idea that Apple monitors network traffic in its stores until he got a photo of what looked like an Apple technician all the way from a computer in Cupertino. Apparently the technician had traced the traffic back to McDonald’s site and installed it himself.
Although Apple has a history of cracking down on everything from trademark infringement to indecent iPhone apps, Mr. McDonald took Apple’s subsequent lack of action as a sign that the company thought it wasn’t a big deal. He posted images from the Apple stores on his blog, peoplestaringatcomputers. He also set up an exhibition of sorts last Sunday at Apple retailers. At popular New York City locations on West 14th Street and in Soho, when consumers looked into at the screen, a picture of themselves beamed back. After that, they saw photos of others in the same screen-staring zombie-like pose. No one raised an alarm.
That is until he was awakened this morning by four Secret Service men in suits holding a search warrant for “fraud and related activity in connection with computers.” Mashable reported that the agents took two computers, an iPod, two flash drives, and told him to expect a separate call from Apple. Under the advisement of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mr. McDonald has stopped speaking about the ongoing investigation to the press and was unable to respond to questions regarding the relationship between the Secret Service and Apple.
“As I understand, photography in open spaces is legal unless explicitly prohibited. The only permission came from the guard,” Mr. McDonald wrote on his Twitter account. Earlier, Mr. McDonald told Mashable that he had also asked customers whether he could take their photos, but with a camera, not software that snapped by the minute.
Unlike his other art projects, Mr. McDonald was careful not to put the code for the photo-taking program online, lest it be used for more nefarious ends. And anyone who wants their visage to be removed from his blog need only ask, he assured. But while the details sort themselves out, perhaps his next project can be candid images of people standing in lines while waiting to buy a new iPhone.
*This post has been updated to reflect new information.