Art exhibit exposes the limits of online privacy

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NEW YORK — Image after image splashes on the wall of the exhibit – a snapshot of young people laughing and drinking, a picture of an elephant, an exposed belly of a woman barely covering her breasts with one arm.

The photos were taken from their computers without their knowledge through a technological glitch.

Over in a corner, visitors can sort through Facebook profile photos from unwitting users through a Web site that organizes them by gender, country and adjectives such as “sly,” ‘’smug” or “easygoing.” Think online dating site, for people who don’t know they are on it.

The works are part of The Public Private, an art exhibit that explores the gray areas of online privacy, surveillance and data collection in the age of Facebook and Google. The pieces shift across the boundaries between what’s public and private, all through the lens of technology.

Its curator, Christiane Paul, says she hopes visitors will walk away with questions. The exhibit’s goal, she says, isn’t to declare Facebook bad or social media evil, but to get people thinking. It’s only been nine years, after all, since Facebook’s birth and six since Twitter was created, so art that explores social networking is just emerging.

“I don’t think good art provides easy answers,” says Paul, adjunct curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a media studies professor at The New School, where the exhibit runs through April 17.

Indeed, bringing the concept of online privacy into the physical world can feel both uncomfortable and eye-opening. The Internet may lull us into a false sense of security. Posting something on Facebook, for instance, can feel more private than shouting it on a busy street, even if the opposite is true – a Facebook post might reach hundreds or thousands of people, perhaps millions.

“We are living, really, in a situation where we don’t know what we want to have as public,” says Paolo Cirio, one of the artists featured. “We don’t know what is public and what is not. It’s a moment of confusion for a lot of people. The next generation already has another idea for privacy.”

Take Cirio’s Street Ghosts, for example. It’s nothing more than life-size images of people caught in Google’s street-level mapping feature, plastered on walls and fences in the same physical place that their digital counterparts occupy on Google Maps.

Cirio calls the online versions “digital ghosts.”

Some of the images are pasted on the outside walls of the building housing the exhibit.

They serve as a reminder of what we leave behind on the Internet.

“We lose control (of our digital information) completely when we die,” he says “But it’s left in the archives of Google, Facebook.”


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