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Artists Offer Tools of Resistance From Companies Collecting Personal Data

A trippy workshop in Brooklyn challenged people to keep their personal information private from data mongering companies.

by Aaron Barksdale
Aug 1 2017, 6:45pm

Melanie Hoff and Dan Taeyoung

Personal data is more than ones and zeroes, it's a digital fingerprint that has both social and financial capital that can be exploited by companies looking to cashing on information that people might assume is kept private. To help empower individuals who may are lost in an age of tech-giant barons, a tech-based art education duo is trying to bridge the gap between data science and individual advocacy.

On July 26, Pioneer Works, a nonprofit cultural center located in Red Hook, Brooklyn held a workshop that questioned traditional notions about data collection.

The workshop, "Data Cindy, Sherman Query," zeroed in on how data can be skewed or manipulated for a specific agenda -- for instance, selling a product or advancing a political agenda. The event was comprised mainly of hipster-ish New Yorkers with an interest in how technology intertwines with activism, with an artistic bent.

The event was headed by the founders of Small Data Squad, Dan Taeyoung and Melanie Hoff, who describe themselves as "internet forensic agents." Taeyoung and Hoff brought up how businesses acquire private information from consumers and what they're able to do with it. They also noted what people can do to reclaim their agency over their personal data. The class focused in part on the work of photographer Cindy Sherman who specializes in creating characterized self-portraits that, according Taeyoung and Hoff, mirror forms of data.

"Understanding how data is manipulated might make you more skeptical about how data is presented."

Hoff and Taeyoung began by explaining who Cindy Sherman is and how her specific work as a photographer draws parallels between an artistic medium and information technology. According to the Small Data Squad, photography was once considered too sophisticated for the masses to understand, but with the advent of social media, suddenly everyone can be a professional photographer. Likewise, the internet has also made data more accessible, and you don't have to be a tech whiz to understand it.


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"Awareness is important," Taeyoung told the group. "It's just as impossible to have data without bias as it is to have a photo that doesn't crop anything."

Companies currently collect all sorts of information about you online, from your search history to your location, and they use that knowledge to sell you things. If that seems sketchy, it's because it is.

Essentially, every time you see an ad on your timeline or in the window of your browser your personal information is being used to coerce you into doing something you might otherwise not do. The workshop highlighted ways that your data is used for profit, but that doesn't mean that these companies or larger institutions have the final say over your data's narrative.

During the workshop, Hoff and Taeyoung instructed the class on how to download their search history from their Google email address. They then taught the participants different tools for sifting through various queries that the tech-giant had collected on them—seemingly without their knowledge.

Hoff noted the irony of having to go through a series of steps to get personal data from a company about your own information. "What is the cultural logic behind data?" Hoff asked the group in a rhetorical question that sent the room buzzing.

"Being more literate, and understanding that [your] data is being altered without your consent and there are ways you can take control of it," said Kira Simon-Kennedy, an arts administrator in attendance.

READ MORE: Scientists and Activists Use Data to Give a Platform to People of Color

The participants, most of whom chose to remain anonymous given that they were sharing information from their personal search history, had strong words for why it was important for communities to have an understanding of their data and the makeup of their digital identities.

"Understanding how data is manipulated might make you more skeptical about how data is presented," said one attendee.

This knowledge about data is particularly salient given the current political climate where terms like alternative facts and claims of fake news get tossed around. This is especially true in articulating phenomena like global warming to climate change deniers or explaining racial bias and police brutality to blue lives matter crusaders.

The event ended with more questions than answers, which perhaps was the point, leaving people musing about big brother's use of private data and how to overcome bias in processing data about others.

If you're in the New York area there is a second part to the Data Cindy, Sherman Query workshop on August 2, which is already sold out but there is a waiting list for hopefuls. Find out more about how to get involved at Pioneer Works .

And check-out web-browsers like DuckDuckGo that keep your browsing history and other online forms private.