Brooklyn artist Kyle McDonald had the unusual idea of photographing people using computers, because, as he tells Mashable, he thought it would allow society to “think more about our computers and how we’re using them.”
The 25-year-old wrote a computer program that would allow him to secretly take a photo every minute of people using public computers at two Apple retail stores in Manhattan. Those photos were then sent back to him automatically. Over three days in June, McDonald installed the program every morning onto roughly 100 computers between the two Apple Stores because the company wipes the hard drives of their public display computers nightly.
Still, he managed to collect thousands of photographs, which he then published onto a Tumblr blog, aptly named, People Staring at Computers.
But his project just comes across as creepy and voyeuristic, and not some altruistic look at the user experience of computers. It’s not like he was doing this to help Apple secretly improve the way people interact with their computers. Because of that, any claims he makes of trying to ascertain how people interact with computers is a bit undercut by his underhanded methods.
He even managed to arrange a guerrilla-style exhibition, of sorts, as seen in this video.
That video makes it seem like nobody particularly minded either being photographed or having their photograph shown to them. Sure, they might have been taken aback by the surprise of having their computer hijacked, but nobody was complaining too loudly.
“When asking the employees if it was generally ok to take photos and video, they not only said ‘yes’, they encouraged it,” he wrote in an explanation of the project.
Oddly enough it was allegedly the Secret Service, and perhaps Apple, that had problems with McDonald’s art project. According to the report by Mashable:
McDonald, who has a master’s degree in electronic arts, admits the project might make some people uncomfortable. Before he began, he got permission from Apple’s security guards to take photos in the store, then asked customers if he could take their photos (with a camera). Had they all said no, he says, he wouldn’t have proceeded. He also refrained from putting the code for the photo-taking program online, as he does with most of his projects, because he recognized that the technology behind his art project could be used for less benign purposes. If someone sees themselves in his collection and wants to be removed, he will remove them.
The larger question is whether he violated any laws. McDonald doesn’t believe he has.
“My main thought is that I’d rather spend my time and money making new work rather than dealing with a computer fraud investigation,” he says.
He’ll also need to purchase a new computer, which he wasn’t planning on.
Except that asking if it’s okay to take photos of a few customers and then doing what he did is akin to a friend asking if they can come over to your apartment to hang and then showing up at 4 a.m. and not leaving for three days.
Sure, it may not be technically illegal, but it’s not exactly kosher either. There’s definitely something morally questionable about how he went about this entire project.
And, as MSNBC notes: “While we are confident that Mashable did the due diligence and looked into the facts of this story, some puzzling questions remain. For one, if McDonald is actually under investigation by the Secret Service, it’s unusual that he was so enthusiastic about talking about and even disseminating his potentially illegal project.”
Apple declined to comment. However, the Secret Service confirmed that its electronic crime division was involved in the investigation, which falls under the code of “fraud and related activity in connection with computers,” reports the BBC. McDonald has not commented on the matter because he was advised by the Electronic Frontier Foundation not to do so.
No arrests have been made in the case as of this writing, but McDonald could potentially be looking at a maximum of 20 years if charges are pressed against him and he gets convicted.
Seriously though, how could McDonald be surprised the Secret Service was coming for him?
Maybe he just thought it was a new recruit of the Men in Black?