xuedi chen

This top turns see-through if you leave personal data exposed

Clothing reveals how much wearer is revealing.

by Liat Clark, wired.co.uk June 17 2014, 9:45am CST

A Brooklyn-based designer has created a 3D-printed sculptural boob tube to spark social commentary on the state of privacy in a data-driven world—by making the top gradually more sheer.

X.pose’s striking black webbed rubber structure was engineered using a Stratasys printer, molded to the body to ensure comfort and very much inspired by creator Xuedi Chen’s previous work, Invasive Growth (moss-grown jewelry based on the parasitic cordyceps fungus). But underneath, its layers tell another story about our lack of control and veritable vulnerability when it comes to who uses our data, what for, and how much they take.

This story originally appeared on Wired UK.

The FBI has admitted that it flew surveillance planes equipped with high-resolution cameras over the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, Maryland—part of a secret program that has monitored over 30 major cities from the skies using aircraft registered to fake companies. And in New York City, the NYPD has outfitted unmarked white vans with advanced X-ray equipment capable of seeing through walls and even people’s clothes.

“There is a huge disparity between the amount of technologies used by the authorities and the technologies available to protesters and activists during protests and riots,” warn Pedro Oliveira and Xuedi Chen, two designers from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. “That gap is only getting wider.”

Oliveira and Chen hope to even the odds with an electronic arsenal of their own. At the Radical Networks conference in Brooklyn this past October, they presented the Backslash kit, a package of devices that help protesters stay safe and connected during demonstrations. Gadgets include everything from portable routers that create improvised communication networks in the event of an Internet blackout to a pendant that blocks radio signals (to prevent cell phone surveillance).

Backslash: a toolkit for protesters facing hyper-militarized, surveillance-heavy police

Backslash – an “art/design” project from NYU Interactive Technology Program researchers Xuedi Chen and Pedro G. C. Oliveira – is a set of high-tech tools for protesters facing down a “hyper-militarized,” surviellance-heavy state adversary, including a device to help protesters keep clear of police kettles; a jammer to foil Stingray mobile-phone surveillance; a mesh-networking router; a “personal cloud” that tries to mirror photos and videos from a protest to an offsite location; and tools for covertly signalling situational reports to other protesters.

The kit was inspired by the experiences of protesters at the Gezi Park demonstrations in Turkey; the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution; and Brazil’s Vinegar Revolt. The designers don’t plan on making the kit available; instead, it’s designed as a “provocation” to stimulate discussion about the nature of protest in the 21st century.

One activist told Ars Technica’s Joshua Kopstein that he advised against carrying high-tech gear (or even running shoes or a camera) to a protest, to prevent the police from targeting you. Backslash’s designers acknowledge that if their tools were deployed in the field, they’d have to be disguised to prevent such a crackdown – the demo/prototypes are designed with a kind of cinematic chicness that conveys protest-cool in a very eye-catching way.

Beyond aesthetics, the kit makes a bunch of smart technological choices. It incorporates something like Sukey, the British app to help protesters avoid “kettling,” the police tactic of confining protesters to a small space, often followed by beatings and other human rights abuses. It improves on Sukey by incorporating a signalling tool (a “panic button”) reminiscent of the anti-kettling wearable I described in my novellaLawful Interception.

Meshing wireless communications is a holy grail of protest movements, a response to the police tactic of shutting down or jamming mobile data services around a protest (see, for example, BART’s wireless shutdownduring the 2011 protests) – this can be a prelude to seizing and/or wiping cameras and other devices to erase evidence of human rights abuses. So the Backslash kit includes an easy-to-operate meshing wireless system.

The secretive use of Stingray surveillance devices is a worry for protesters, because it can be used to gather the identities of all participants at a demonstration, targeting them for reprisals – as occurred in during Kiev’s Euromaidan uprising, when police captured the mobile phone identifiers of protesters and later texted threatening messages to them. You can avoid Stingrays by turning off your phone or putting it in a Faraday pouch, or by putting it in airplane mode (assuming your phone hasn’t been infected with malware that covertly disables airplane mode) – but Backslash offers you a low-powered cellphone jammer that makes it theoretically impossible for a Stingray to read it, while still leaving it free and uncovered for use as a video/still camera.

The Backslash personal cloud drive tries to exfiltrate your images to an offsite storage, while taking care of operational security by wiping out identifying metadata that your mobile device will usually default to adding.

The researchers claim that all the technology in their project actually works and they describe it as “open source”, but have not made their schematics, source code, etc available as far as I can tell, so it’s hard to say whether it would withstand adversarial scrutiny and countermeasures, but it’s a smart, handsome and provocative piece even without that (especially given that they’re not proposing to equip protesters with any of this gear).