23 May 2007

His Name is Hasan Elahi and He Doesn't Care Who Knows It

One of the most consistently trafficked posts on this site is something I wrote a couple of years ago entitled "My Name is Colin Samuels and I Don't Care Who Knows It". In it, I argued that the digital age had made anonymity impossible and that we should focus on privacy; at the time, I wrote: "Our collective focus should not be on preserving an already-lost concept of anonymity; rather, we should seek to define and protect that universe of private activities in which we should be left alone -- not necessarily anonymous, but alone . . . . Anonymity is a pipe dream; let's concentrate on fighting the good fight for protecting privacy, not identity."

What I had in mind was that passive dissemination of personal information was inevitable but privacy still needed protection. I had not contemplated that active, constant disclosures of personal information could be used to protect oneself; an article in the current issue of Wired describes one person who has not only contemplated but embraced that concept:
[Artist and college professor Hasan] Elahi has documented nearly every waking hour of his life during that time. He posts copies of every debit card transaction, so you can see what he bought, where, and when. A GPS device in his pocket reports his real-time physical location on a map .

Elahi's site is the perfect alibi. Or an audacious art project. Or both. The Bangladeshi-born American says the US government mistakenly listed him on its terrorist watch list — and once you're on, it's hard to get off. To convince the Feds of his innocence, Elahi has made his life an open book. Whenever they want, officials can go to his site and see where he is and what he's doing. Indeed, his server logs show hits from the Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense, and the Executive Office of the President, among others.

The globe-hopping prof says his over exposed life began in 2002, when he stepped off a flight from the Netherlands and was detained at the Detroit airport. He says FBI agents later told him they'd been tipped off that he was hoarding explosives in a Florida storage unit; subsequent lie detector tests convinced them he wasn't their man. But with his frequent travel — Elahi logs more than 70,000 air miles a year exhibiting his art work and attending conferences — he figured it was only a matter of time before he got hauled in again. He might even be shipped off to Gitmo before anyone realized their mistake. The FBI agents had given him their phone number, so he decided to call before each trip; that way, they could alert the field offices. He hasn't been detained since.

So it dawned on him: If being candid about his flights could clear his name, why not be open about everything? "I've discovered that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away," he says . . . .


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