What was meant as a creative warning about surveillance is already really in use on the streets of America

Steve Watson
April 24, 2014

Two artists recently created a light bulb that covertly monitored the conversations of people in New York. The project was intended as a warning over how dangerous ubiquitous surveillance technology can be. However, there are such devices already in existence and being used on US streets for real.

Wired reports that Kyle McDonald and Brian House created the “Conversnitch” device out of household objects and a miniature computer, for under $100. Made to look like a lamp bulb, the device can be fitted to any standard lighting fixture.

The device is connected to the internet via Wi-Fi and has been live tweeting snippets of people’s conversations for months. The artists remain coy about where they have placed the devices, simply acknowledging that “It has potentially been deployed in various places.” A video shows one of the devices being fitted into a street light.

“What does it mean to deploy one of these in a library, a public square, someone’s bedroom? What kind of power relationship does it set up?” asks House, a 34-year-old adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. “And what does this stream of tweets mean if it’s not set up by an artist but by the U.S. government?”

The artists told reporters that they want to make people think more about privacy issues in society, especially in light of the technology that currently surrounds us, moving toward an “internet of things”.

The creators also say that the idea was born before the latest NSA revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden were made public last year.

“We hope that Conversnitch helps people remember the feeling of frustration and powerless we used to have before we got used to Snowden announcing a new secret NSA mass-surveillance program every week,'” Mr MacDonald tells MailOnline.

“Surveillance programs like Optic Nerve, where GCHQ (The British spy agency) intercepted millions of video chat sessions, have destroyed our ability to forget.”

“We were curious what happens when that very digital kind of ever-present surveillance is brought into the physical world.” he adds.

“Certainly the next step from every government surveillance agency will be to move from collecting digital records to physical ones,” MacDonald notes.

“We already see some of this with face recognition databases and surveillance camera databases, but they are mostly without power until they are paired with automated analysis.”

While this is an art project and therefore could be easily dismissed, there really are currently streetlights in use that are capable of monitoring conversations.

As we reported last year, the company behind a new ‘smart’ street lighting system which is being rolled out in major cities like Las Vegas admits that the technology has the capability of analyzing voices and tracking people, features that will aid the Department of Homeland Security in “protecting its citizens.”

We first reported on Intellistreets bragging of its product’s “homeland security” applications back in 2011, with the backlash from privacy advocates causing the company to remove a promotional video from YouTube. The video was later restored (see above), although comments were disabled.

As we reported previously, Intellistreets are just one component of a huge network of microphones embedded in everything from games consoles to gunshot detectors that are beginning to blanket our streets and dominate our home life.

In this instance it seems that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.


Steve Watson is a London based writer and editor for Alex Jones’ Infowars.com, andPrisonplanet.com. He has a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Politics at The University of Nottingham, and a Bachelor Of Arts Degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University.

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