Under the Microscope

A look at the transparent life of TEDGlobal speaker Hasan Elahi, an FBI target who exposed every detail of his life—restaurant receipts, location, banking activity—by posting it online for the government to see.

 

When Hasan Elahi was 9 years old, a Bangladeshi-born boy living with his family in a tiny apartment in Queens, N.Y., with his immigrant parents, he enjoyed listening to an AM radio station that played country music. As a child, he couldn’t imagine that 20 years later, in 2002, he would face six months of ongoing, hours-long interrogations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And he certainly couldn’t predict that during the questioning he would wonder, “How can I relate what I know about the Charlie Daniels Band to these FBI agents? Because if I make a reference to a country music song’s lyrics, they will discover that I know things that most Middle Eastern terror suspects don’t know.”

Elahi, now 39, is most definitely not a terrorist—although TV host and political satirist Stephen Colbert jokingly called him his “favorite terrorist” while introducing him for a 2008 interview on the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report.” Although this joke is absurd, when you meet Elahi you understand why Colbert would refer to him as such: Elahi is affable, laid-back (he’s usually wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, his hair either dyed a bright hue or bleached platinum blond), and both erudite and casual at the same time. Elahi is a respected artist, having studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and since last year is an associate professor of art at the University of Maryland and director of the Digital Cultures and Creativity program. He’s shown his work at the world’s most prestigious venues, like the Venice Biennale, Centre Georges Pompidou, and The Hermitage.

But months after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the owner of a storage unit Elahi was renting at the time reported to the police that “an Arab who had explosives fled on Sept. 12,” and pointed them to Elahi. And that day, Elahi’s life, his artwork, and his academic research took an unexpected turn.

He was traveling in Europe when police received the erroneous tip, and when he returned to the U.S. he was whisked into rounds of questioning by various authorities. This led to nearly half a year of interrogations and nine polygraph tests by the FBI between June and November of 2002. He was then assigned an FBI agent with whom he had to regularly report his whereabouts as part of standard terror-suspect monitoring procedure.

After months of this kind of monitoring, Elahi decided to turn his experience into an art project. In 2003, he built a website on which he’d constantly post photos and information about restaurants where he was eating, airports he was checking in at, events he was attending, even restrooms he was using. This was the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-foursquare era, and Elahi’s concept of over-sharing details and images of his life was a novel one.

So novel that Elahi had to singlehandedly create a rudimentary version of today’s most popular social-networking sites, posting a map online tagged with his location, along with photos documenting his days. A network server sent the information to the United States Geological Survey, which provided an aerial surveillance image of where he was. A software application matched the map with the uploaded images. His goal was to flood the market with his information in the hopes of “devaluing the currency of the FBI,” Elahi explains. In other words, his private information was of interest to the FBI because it was private. By living publicly, he then saturated the FBI and anyone else interested in learning about his life with information, making it less interesting because it was no longer secret.

In the mid-2000s, Elahi would draw gasps when he’d present the concept of his website, TrackingTranscience.net, and what was then an uncommon daily ritual of exposing his most mundane daily activities to the public in a never ending stream of information.

“When I started, people thought I was insane. They wondered, why tell everyone everything? But there are three quarters of a billion people doing this right now on Facebook,” says Elahi. “That’s 300 million away from the population of India. That the population of Facebook could represent the third largest country in the world is not insignificant.”

Intriguingly, Elahi came up with the Tracking Tran-science website around the same time Mark Zuckerberg conceived of Facebook. Tracking Transcience first began getting public attention in 2006 (when Elahi presented at high-profile conferences), the same year that Jack Dorsey launched Twitter. While Elahi’s work once was eerily prescient, his brave self-exposure is now a typical behavior.

“I’m obsolete. My work is 100 percent obsolete. I could stop this project at any second. My phone does a better job of tracking me than my software,” Elahi says, laughing. “There’s something really beautiful about that as an artist. It’s quite thrilling to know—quite humbling to know—that my art is no longer art. It is now daily life.”

Elahi’s work now forces anyone who chooses to post intimate details about his or her life online to think about the value of his or her personal data. There is also a Warholian, Pop-Art feel to Elahi’s work, which today reflects, and seems to mimic, social media trends, despite having preceded them. “Life imitates art,” as the cliché goes.

Elahi is still posting his whereabouts and his meals on the Tracking Transcience site, and the same photos tend to appear on his Facebook page, where he has more than 1,000 friends. Amazingly, the FBI and other security agencies still visit the site to check in on him. But he’s less interested in exposing his whereabouts because of them. Today he’s applying his experience as an immigrant to the U.S., and as a pioneer in self-surveillance software, to how he analyzes and teaches students about the evolution of technology and its roles in global culture and society.

“It’s interesting to look at technology from the point of view of the immigrant. Technology is a land of immigrants; we are all new to whatever technology emerges, and have to learn new languages and new customs to adapt,” Elahi says. “We had to assimilate to the world of texting, for instance.”

Because he has learned to live between cultures as a Bangladeshi-American, bouncing back and forth from speaking Bengali and English at home with his family while growing up, or discussing country music when quizzed by the FBI on his possible “terrorism”-related activities, or writing artist statements for gallery exhibitions while also writing software code for his website, Elahi believes that being able to cross-reference and cross-pollinate ideas is an important aspect of technological innovation.

One of his most absorbing projects today is shaping the Digital Cultures and Creativity program at the University of Maryland. “My students come from 30 different majors, from aerospace engineering to Spanish, from early education to business,” Elahi says during a Skype video call from his campus office. “What we do is bring them all together, in a creative program, in an art program. But we’re not trying to accessorize what they’re doing with art. We’re trying to offer them—and they offer each other—a different understanding about the world.”

When talking to Elahi as he sits in his office, you can’t help but notice that it’s undecorated and piled from floor to ceiling with boxes. As it’s clear from his Facebook posts, he’s been busy traveling over the past year, as an in-demand speaker and thinker who is often off attending conference after international conference to talk about his work, which is clearly anything but obsolete.

Hasan Elahi's transparent life is documented at trackingtransience.net. Reena Jana is a consulting editor at frog and a former editor at BusinessWeek. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, SmartPlanet, and other publications.

Photography by Hasan Elahi

The Stuff of Life

Issue 15

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