a conversation with Paolo Cirio 

The Obscurity project originated from the appropriation of over 10 million mugshots taken in the US, of people that have been charged but not necessarily convicted. Their images and personal data were however, catalogued and brought to the public domain, being posted and indexed on certain sites. These mugshot websites then shame these people who have been arrested by boosting their presence on search engine results, and then monetize the situation by obliging them to pay a fee if they want to remove their mugshots from the websites. As a response to this situation, Paolo Cirio has created an algorithm that shuffled data on over 15 million individuals arrested in U.S. and then posted them online on an equally very well indexed website to blur or obfuscate the information…

 

The project started from the fact that in America there is a lot of controversy around mass incarceration, which has been ongoing for around 30 years, because it is very easy to end up in jail for minor offenses, from smoking marijuana to driving under the influence or sometimes for nothing (aka racial discrimination) so there are 50 million or more people who have been arrested and (their personal information) put online including minors and seniors. The point from which all started is that in America these images are in the public domain, the local sheriff or the federal prison often have to publish on the prison website a mugshot for anyone arrested.

How is it possible to switch from an understandable classification of certain data to their publication online?

Because the local sheriff and the local prison have their own websites by law… then every state has different laws on publishing these photos. Also the media often defends this practice under the premise of freedom of the press, while it is actually because the publication of mugshot generates advertising revenues. There are even published magazines, available on newsstands, where these mugshots are published. These are not of individuals sought by the authorities but of anyone who has been arrested. This is a culture that has created a business that later became corrupted from within, demand grew and on the internet clearly it is out of control. There are sites like mugshot.com, with millions of images and data records that are published without limits. 

How are they so well indexed?

Because this is precisely their economic objective: to index data. 

And the search engines, like Google, how have they responded?

Clearly, there has been huge concern about this issue. It all started around 2004, when different media began talking about it. Initially search engines like Google tackled the issue, however they actually have an interest in keeping the content as publishers. And in fact, even now Google and other search engines still index these mugshot websites, exposing victims of mass incarceration on the Internet. The situation is also out of control because the owners of mugshot websites are often anonymous or have moved to other countries where they are therefore subject to other jurisdictions and it’s even more difficult to remove their data.

What you’ve done happened online, to counter this collection of data, creating new information also well indexed on the internet, but obfuscated…

My questioning wanted to go further than just removing data. For, even if this information should remain private with only law enforcement agencies having access to them, there will still be another big issue because officers could then potentially arrest anyone for any reasons, without citizens being aware of it. The point here is not just about privacy and security, but has more to do with having a more sophisticated and elaborate use of data. So how could this data can be useful to society and public services, but at the same time how could it be protected.

One question, which is very important in the debate on obfuscation, is its ethical connotation, or how the way it is used can finally be positive or negative…

Above all, we cannot generalize, as many commentators on privacy and surveillance do sometimes. It is much more difficult to understand how this information should be treated, when, how and what should be made public and shared, and who decides to gather them. This requires more public debates, education and understanding around the notions of privacy and transparency.

In fact, you have thought of a petition for the Right to Remove…

Part of my project is also a campaign, a research on finding a legal solution to respect the right of American citizens, as Europeans have, to be able to remove this data from search engines in a legal manner. Google, along with other search engines does not respect this in U.S. The Right to Remove is more complex than the Right to be Forgotten, it is a matter that needs to be more elaborated in categorizing the type of information that must be removed, in different contexts… social, cultural, legal… it is something we as a society are slowly coming to understand. In the Obscurity project there is this peculiarity for which you can choose to remove or keep what kind of information for that particular individual, which nevertheless still maintains some data which are more statistical, there is a precise algorithm that keeps some necessary data to understand the reasons why the person was arrested and where, which may help to understand certain social context while maintaining the privacy of those arrested. So it is not only Obfuscation but also to make public some information on these types of arrests while preserving privacy. The algorithm does the obfuscation of the image, name, last name, and keeps the gender, race and age. Certain patterns are maintained so you can know, for example, how many people of a certain ethnic group in their thirties were arrested in a particular location… 

A very strong effort to raise awareness…

Of course, the fact that there are so many people arrested is an important point for me. The fundamental problem is that in the US, a greater proportion of people are arrested than in the rest of the world, and clearly the majority are a certain category of people, poor…

People who maybe are not even able or do not have the means to prove their innocence…

In fact now, there are several people who are writing directly to me, some are confused as they think I’m behind the real sites that make public the information, so they send me emails asking me to remove their mugshots, or send me legal documents to prove their innocence. My site is indexed like the others. Other people instead immediately understand the project and thank me, and ask me to do the obfuscation on other sites. The next step is to call for a the Right to Remove campaign.

Concretely how can this right be applied?

It is a matter of political organization on one side and on then on a more practical direct side, with an online form where you can enter the URL and state why you want to remove that information and automatically a legal letter is sent to Google… through a lawyer bot.

Your activity does not properly fit what usually is thought to be the work of an artist, right?

I am very interested in Social Practice, an emerging art movement in the U.S., which however hasn’t been dealing with the Internet as a social environment. Therefore I define this artwork as Internet social practice, an artistic activity where artists offer creative practical solutions to a social problem that society has not yet managed to solve. I have several friends in NYC who do this kind of work and I was very influenced by them, so my artistic background in fhacking, tactical media and street art is now naturally evolving in this direction, because there are so many social issues that the artist can work on at a practical level, when there is no one else who has the energy and the creativity to do so, and today artists go beyond being social commentators and can do things a for practical use.

There are results, both aesthetical and ethical, that almost merge, such as when you say that the shades of blue of the obfuscation outputs of the photos have semantic correlations as well as visual with the intervention you did…

I think of the aesthetic solution as complementary results to the practical solution of presentation. Society is much more complex in these days, and art thus also should become more sophisticated, there are interconnected layers that are conceptual, aesthetical, social, political, legal, economical, etc. It is the contemporary issues that cannot be solved only through inspiration from an image but is more complex. In addition to the image there is always research, evidence, and propositions.

Talking of Obfuscation someone spoke also of disobedience…

This is not obsolete political intent, here it’s more than just subversion, I’m trying to push for a new law, this becomes almost legislative art. Today it is a matter of being active in understanding and solving complexity, being actively involved, not just simplifying it with cynicism… there are different types of Obfuscation, which can be applied in different ways, it is an extreme case for which personal information has become a mere commodity to trade and a cause of social annihilation, and then we must act by this means, to destroy or make it difficult to access some types of information. It is an extreme case but necessary in this information universe we live in. It’s a question of ethics and empathy that we have in the physical world already that needs to be an integral part of our online life as well.

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