Ever wonder what happened to Kyle McDonald, the artist who had the Secret Service sicced on him last year for installing spy cam software on computers in New York City Apple Stores that took pictures of unsuspecting Apple customers? He's written a long, fascinating account of his ordeal for Wired. Turns out it all ended for the best.
Kyle McDonald's "People Staring at Computers," was a gallery of random visitors to New York Apple stores like the one above. They were snapped unaware with a Mac webcam using software McDonald had secretly installed, which also automatically sent McDonald the photos. It was at first glance just another web curiosity, an easy commentary on privacy and anonymity in the digital age. It reminded me of Andy Baio's 2008 project The Faces of Mechanical Turk, where he paid workers on Amazon's crowd-sourcing service to take pictures of themselves, revealing the identities of the anonymous drones behind the service.
Then Apple got wind of the project and the secret service visited McDonald to investigate his alleged "computer fraud."
When McDonald's story broke last July it was the perfect story to fill a slow summer tech news day: Secret service! Apple! Spy cams! To some it was yet another example of Apple's insane secrecy, squashing a poor artist's vision. To others it was the story of a criminal hacker using art as an excuse to violate people's privacy. But as McDonald points out in his Wired piece, Apple's overreaction sent McDonald on a weird journey that touched a number of hot internet issues and made the piece bigger than any of that.
In the end, if Apple hadn't so vehemently condemned the piece, it would have been resigned to live as just another quick F.A.T. Lab project, and part of my ongoing curiosity exploring computer-mediated interaction. But because they had the project taken offline, and my computer confiscated, Apple managed to give it more attention than I could have ever attracted. The reporters using headlines with "artist" in scare quotes got the media artists mad. The censorship and search warrant got the freedom of speech people mad. The feeling of privacy invasion, or just the awareness of surveillance, took care of everyone else. Apple created an amazing discussion I never could have planned.
Thanks, Apple! McDonald wasn't charged with anything, wasn't sued, and even got his computers back. Be sure to read the whole piece here.