Hasan Elahi: What Would You Do If The Feds Were Watching You? When Hasan Elahi's name was mistakenly added to the U.S. government's watch list, he fought the assault on his privacy by turning his life inside-out for the world to see.
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What Would You Do If The Feds Were Watching You?

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What Would You Do If The Feds Were Watching You?

What Would You Do If The Feds Were Watching You?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas around privacy or what's left of it anyway, and whether privacy is going to mean anything in the future. So there's a guy in Maryland. His name is Hasan Elahi. He's an artist. He teaches at a university. And you could say that Hasan doesn't have much privacy at all. And the end of his privacy began about a decade ago at Detroit Metro Airport.

HASAN ELAHI: So I had an exhibition in West Africa. So I was flying back, and, you know, I mean, as an artist, you go wherever there's work. So I'm flying back, and I landed in Detroit. And, you know, you're going through customs - the usual thing - and immigration. And the guy like swipes the passport through and just, like, freezes. And I mean, like, completely white. I'm thinking, OK, what's going on here?

RAZ: Yeah.

ELAHI: And he says follow me, please. Walks me through, and I end up in an INS holding cell. And I'm sitting in this huge room and, you know, I was, like - there's all these people from every far corner of the Earth. You know, you can see the fear in everyone's face. This is their first day in the U.S., and things aren't going well. And then, literally, like, it's like a scene out of the movies. Like, this guy in a black suit walk straight up to me, and just looks at me - says I expected you to be older. Just bizarre, you know, this stuff. So I'm like, you mind explaining what's going on here? And he said something like, well, you've got some explaining to do yourself.

RAZ: The agent had all kinds of questions for Hasan - where he'd been, who he'd seen, who paid for the trip. But not just questions about that trip. The agent wanted to know details of where Hasan had been over the past two years.

ELAHI: Yeah, he's like, where were you on this day? Where were you around September 12th? Where were you on this date? So we read my calendar of appointments. You know, back then, it was my old Palm 505. So we read, literally, months and months and months of my appointments.

RAZ: This is at the airport.

ELAHI: At the airport.

RAZ: He's asking you where you were on specific dates?

ELAHI: Yeah. Yeah. So it turns out that I had rented a storage unit in Tampa, Florida where I was living at the time. So he's like, you know, what did you have in the storage unit? I was like, winter clothes, like, furniture that I can't fit in my ratty apartment, you know, assorted garage sale material. And he's like, OK, no explosives.

RAZ: OK, so it turns out Hasan was mistakenly put on an FBI watch list. And eventually, he got through that interrogation in Detroit. He picked up his stuff, and he caught the next flight home to Tampa. And a couple days later, he got a call from an FBI field agent. And he asked Hasan if he could stop by to answer a few more questions. Now by this point, Hasan was hoping to put any doubt to rest so he volunteered to take a series of polygraph tests. Hasan picks up the story from the TED stage.


ELAHI: One of the polygraph questions was - well, the first one was is your name Hasan? Yes. Are we in Florida? Yes. Is today Tuesday? Yes - 'cause you have to base it on a yes or no. Then of course in the next question is do you belong to any groups that wish to harm the United States? I work at university.


ELAHI: You know, so I was like, well, maybe you want to ask some of my colleagues that directly, but - I mean, I said, OK, aside from what we had discussed, do you belong to any groups that wish to harm the United States? I was like, no. All right, so at the end of - after the end of six months of this and nine consecutive polygraphs, they said, hey, everything is fine. I was like, I know. That's what I've been trying to tell you guys all along. I know everything's fine. So they're sitting at me, and they're looking at me. It's really odd. And it's like, guys, you know, I travel a lot. This is with the FBI, and I was like, you know, all we need is Alaska not to get the last memo, and here we go all over again. And there was a sincere concern there. And they said well, you know, if you get into trouble, give us a call. We'll take care of it. So ever since then, before I would go anywhere, I would call the FBI. I'd tell them, hey guys, this where I'm going. This is my flight, OK. Northwest flight 7 coming into Seattle on March 12 or whatever. And it wasn't that I had to, but I chose to. I just wanted say, hey guys, don't want to make it look like I'm making any sudden moves.


ELAHI: You know, I don't want you guys to think that I'm about to flee, just letting you know. Heads up. And so I just kept doing this over and over and over. And then the phone calls turned to emails, and the emails got longer and longer and longer.

RAZ: I mean, so, like, you had, like, your FBI agent, which, by the way, is insane. You had your own - it's like your own therapist. He was your own FBI - and he was on your speed dial on your cell phone.

ELAHI: Well, yeah. Then I started realizing, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. Why is this guy so special? Why is it that only he gets to know everything?

RAZ: OK, so this is where it gets a little weird because if you go to Hasan's website, it will show you exactly where he is at this very moment. And also timestamped photos of places he's been throughout the day.

ELAHI: This was the parking lot where I was trying to find a parking space this afternoon right before I walked into here...

RAZ: ...The meal he ate this morning, points along his commute...

ELAHI: ...At the light before I get on the main road. That's at work...

RAZ: ...The toilet he used a few minutes ago.

ELAHI: By the way, you guys have great toilets...

RAZ: We have nice toilets.

ELAHI: ...in the new building.

RAZ: Definitely nice toilets here.

ELAHI: Yeah.

RAZ: Hasan Elahi tracks himself. He turned his interrogation into a nonstop art project to tell the entire world where he is at any given moment. And he calls it Tracking Transience.

ELAHI: These are the airports that I hang out in because I like to - I like airports. Kennedy Airport, May 19th, Tuesday. This is in Warsaw. Singapore. This is a parking lot in Elko, Nevada, at a Korean supermarket buying my kimchi 'cause I like kimchi.

RAZ: But why would anyone want to give up their privacy voluntarily? Here's Hasan's explanation from his TED Talk.


ELAHI: When I first started this project, people were looking at me, saying why would you want to tell everybody what you're doing, where you're at? Why are you posting these photos? Well, this was before an age before people were tweeting everywhere and 750 million people were posting status messages or poking people. So in a way, I'm actually kind of glad that I'm completely obsolete. I mean, I'm still doing this project, but it really is obsolete because you're all doing it. This is something that we all are doing on a daily basis, whether we're aware of it or not. So we're creating our own archives and so on. The other thing that's also interesting that's going on here is the fact that intelligence agencies - and it doesn't matter who they are - they all operate in an industry where their commodity is information or restricted access to information. And the reason their information has any value is, well, because no one else has access to it. And by me cutting out the middleman and giving it straight to you, the information that the FBI has has no value so thus devaluing their currency.

And I understand that on an individual level, it's purely symbolic. But if 300 million people in the U.S. started doing this, we would have to redesign the entire intelligence system from the ground up 'cause it just wouldn't work if everybody was sharing everything. And, you know - and some of my friends have always said, hey, you're just paranoid. No one's, you know - well, why are you doing this because no one's really watching, no one's really going to bother you? So one of the things that I do is I actually look through my server logs very carefully 'cause, you know, it's about surveillance so I'm watching who's watching me. And I came up with these. So these are some of my sample logs.

And I cleaned up the list a little bit so you can see that the Homeland Security likes to come by. Department of Homeland Security. You can see the National Security Agency likes to come by. I actually moved very close to them. I live like, right down the street from them now. Central Intelligence Agency, Executive office of the president. Not really sure why they show up, but they do. I think, you know, they kind of like to look at art. And I'm glad that we have patrons of the arts in these fields.

RAZ: So, Hasan, what - like, say somebody, like, emails you and says, hey let's hang out. I totally want to hang out. And you can't say, oh, I'm really sorry. I'm visiting people out of town today because all they have to do is go to the website and see that you are in Maryland...

ELAHI: Yeah.

RAZ: ...At your house.

ELAHI: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: So you can't - like, you can't do that.

ELAHI: No. No. It gets even weirder when you just don't post for several days. It's, like, well, wait a minute. What happened?

RAZ: What's going on?

ELAHI: What's going on?

RAZ: What are you hiding?

ELAHI: What are you hiding?

RAZ: Yeah.

ELAHI: Yeah. And we might say, look, I don't participate in this. I'm disconnecting, but that's not the case. That's not an option. Your water company knows what time you shower every day. I mean, that's kind of creepy when you think about it. Bruce Schneier said a really interesting thing about Gmail reading your emails so it knows how to pop up those ads. And he's kind of like, well, it's like your dog looking at you naked. I mean, are you bothered by that?

RAZ: But, I mean, like, my dog doesn't have like a bionic eyeball that goes to the NSA.

ELAHI: Well, this is the thing so...

RAZ: Yeah. I don't have a dog, by the way.

ELAHI: But here's the thing.

RAZ: A cat.

ELAHI: A cat. Yes.

RAZ: Yes.

ELAHI: I like cats.

RAZ: Me too. I love cats.

ELAHI: Yeah. I know.

RAZ: We have two. And they have seen me without clothes, and - but see I know that...

ELAHI: But does it feel weird?

RAZ: No 'cause they're not sending that information to Google or to the NSA. It just stays in the cat.

ELAHI: I don't know, you know, I mean, I've changed my behavior around my cat. But, you know - but I think this is the beautiful thing is that, you know, now there are literally billions of people doing this. There's a billion people on Facebook alone. That is the third largest country in the world. That completely changes this perspective.

RAZ: What does that say about privacy and about, like, whether it means anything?

ELAHI: It means something completely different than it meant. And the concepts and the technology are changing so quickly. But when it comes to regulating these things, that's when things get tricky. And I can't tell you whether it's for better or for worse, but I can certainly tell you that this idea of what we think of privacy today is going to be different.

RAZ: I mean, I guess, like, we should expect that the idea of private things are just not really going to be private anymore, and that we should kind of surrender to it.

ELAHI: Well, maybe not. Maybe not necessarily in that same sense because if you go back to say, you know, a 100, 200 years ago, maybe we don't even have to go that far back in time. Maybe there's plenty of places in the world right now where you go to that small village where everyone knows everyone's business. And essentially, we're kind of having a similar reverting to that.

RAZ: Yeah.

ELAHI: But except now, it's like billions of people.

RAZ: We're back to the medieval village...


RAZ: ...Where the vicar knew, like, what everybody was doing.

ELAHI: Yes. Except now, the vicar just happens to be the NSA.

RAZ: Hasan Elahi. His web project is called Tracking Transience. Check out his talk at TED.com.

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