As if you weren't paranoid enough about being photographed eating on the Tube or being secretly recorded by Glass-wearing arseholes, two artists have now installed an eavesdropping lamp in an unspecified McDonald's in New York. The lamp picks up tidbits of conversation and tweets them out of context from @conversnitch, with hilarious – and creepy – results.
"I'm not pestering you, hun, I'm just asking why you didn't get the job!"— Conversnitch (@conversnitch) April 18, 2014
"I'm really fine. Please, just drop it. I don't want to talk about this anymore."— Conversnitch (@conversnitch) April 18, 2014
"Conversations are fleeting in person, they last briefly and then disappear," says Kyle McDonald, who built the lamp alongside fellow artist Brian House. "It's exactly the opposite of everything the internet is. With everyone keeping more personal records every day, and various governments and corporations doing similarly, how much longer do we have until the idea of a fleeting moment, much less a private one, is a complete impossibility?"
All it took to build this spy lamp was one Raspberry Pi, a microphone, a light source and a flower pot for a shade. The Pi takes power from the light socket, records the conversation and hijacks the free Wi-Fi in McDonald's to send the conversations to Mechanical Turk, an Amazon service that hires online workers to carry out temping tasks. Workers then transcribe the audio and tweet the results. About fifty of them have been doing it for nearly seven months.
How did they get away with it? "If you act with conviction, people will tolerate almost anything in New York without asking questions," says McDonald.
The above video suggests Conversnitch can be deployed anywhere: libraries, streetlamps and private bedrooms. The project warns of a future possibility that one day our every word and movement will be recorded and documented, whether they're communications of love or despair (or complaints about the weather).
"There is an element of warning," McDonald agress. "Hopefully part of that warning is not just about looking out for this technology, but also looking into ourselves and seeing why it is created in the first place: in spite of the many comments requesting our imminent arrest, Conversnitch has gained over 1,500 followers in the last day. Gossip is probably older than language."
Go to @conversnitch and marvel at the everyday banalities recorded by this spying lamp. Or even better, make it yourself – the source code for Conversnitch is public, meaning anybody can become a lamp-wielding spy.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot