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Spoofing Big Brother

By Anja Boenicke | October 5, 2007

USSR or USA? Poster from the
Washington-Baltimore commuter train.
Photo by Jason Ford (CC).

The red arrow on this map shows his current location, and anyone with internet access can always locate Hasan Elahi. [At the time this article was published, Mr. Elahi was attending a conference not far from our office.] A conceptual artist and Rutgers University professor, Elahi documents his every move online with hundreds of pictures. He photographs the toilets he uses, the food he eats, the places he sees. He even posts copies of his banking statements, which show data such as how much he spends at the local New Jersey pharmacy. Hasan Elahi is his own Big Brother.

It all began five years ago, on June 19, 2002. The Bangladeshi-born U.S. citizen was returning from an exhibition overseas when he was detained at the Detroit airport. The authorities suspected him of transporting explosives for al-Qaeda. Elahi is a frequent traveler who attends seminars and gallery openings all over the world. This behavior pattern and his Arab-sounding name and dark skin were enough for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to arrest him.

During the months following his arrest, he was questioned repeatedly by the FBI. They investigated his family, his friends, and his employer. Six months later, after questioning him with lie detectors, the FBI cleared him. Yet he remains on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list.

Since he was never formally accused, there is no official apology or letter of exculpation. Officially, these interrogations never took place. Elahi was scared. He asked for a written affirmation of his release, but his request was denied. After all, such a document would have confirmed that the interrogations took place.

From that point on, every time Elahi traveled, he informed the FBI so that he would be able to reenter the United States without trouble. One day, out of fear of ending up in Guantanamo, he simply decided to make his entire life public. He now wears a tracking bracelet and his location can always be found online, where he posts countless photographs.

In the post-9/11 hysteria of surveillance, homeland security, and the PATRIOT Act, Elahi's strategy has become that of pure transparency. Not only does the information overload ensure his safety, but it also has an underlying economic elegance—by flooding the market with information, the information itself loses its value.

Some might call the artist paranoid, and the documentation of his life seems absurdly tedious. Why punish himself with hypersurveillance? But his strategy of coopting the government's tactics constitutes a viable and ingenious stroke of poking fun at an administration that has not hesitated to compromise civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.

For foreigners entering the United States, being questioned at the border has become the norm, and the procedure complex and arduous. In recent times, foreigners were asked whether they had engaged in terrorist activity or provided material support to a terrorist organization. Other questions referred to membership in totalitarian parties, smuggling, money laundering, and other criminal offenses. These questions were soon abolished. Their efficiency was questionable. After all, what terrorist would admit to planning an attack or a criminal background when the answers would jeopardize his mission?

Nevertheless, the Department of Homeland Security still photographs and fingerprints all foreigners entering the United States every time they reenter. This effort is intended to help identify criminals traveling with fraudulent documents, but the system remains full of loopholes.

Thousands of illegal immigrants from Central and South America enter the United States annually. Anyone with an American passport, regardless of whether he has ever lived in the country, can enter the United States without being fingerprinted. Even if the Department of Homeland Security devises more strategies and technologies to control cross-border migration, in this age of frequent travel it will never be possible to fully seal the country from outside danger.

A question worth pondering is whether the United States might pursue a different strategy to combat terrorism. At a conference on post-9/11 changes in visa policy hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS Senior Fellow Gerald Epstein stated, "In a globalized world, national security depends on interconnections, not walls. The United States must implement security measures that support, rather than frustrate, the foreign engagements that we rely upon for economic, scientific, technical, military, and diplomatic strength."

Perhaps it's time to give Big Brother more workday smoke breaks so that Mr. Elahi can relax his smokescreen—and positive international relations can take over.


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Read More: Democracy, Governance, Human Rights, Migration, Security, Technology, Bangladesh, United States, Americas, Asia, Global

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