Pre-empting Investigation, San Jose State U. Professor Records the Details of His Life

The San Jose Mercury News ran a story this weekend about Hasan Elahi, an artist and assistant professor at San Jose State University who is “lifelogging” his whereabouts and activities to demonstrate that he is not involved in terrorism. The whole project came out of a life-changing event in 2002 — when, Mr. Elahi says, he was detained for nine hours at a U.S. airport and accused of stockpiling explosives during a trip to Africa.

“Elahi reasoned that if he was fated to live under a perpetual cloud of suspicion anyway, he would turn his Kafkaesque existence — every waking, quaking moment of it — into ‘surveillance art,’” writes Bruce Newman of The Mercury News. “If government agencies wanted to track his movements, Elahi would do it for them, letting his life play out in surreal time for the whole world to see on the Internet. If Big Brother was watching, Elahi would bore him to death.”

So everyday life becomes performance art. In fact, Mr. Newman raises the question of whether the whole exercise — including the story about being detained in the airport — is performance: “The FBI will neither confirm nor deny Elahi’s claim that he was detained because there is no official record that it ever happened. A field agent in the bureau’s San Francisco office responded to a description of Elahi’s story as ‘not likely,’ but no one at the FBI with direct knowledge of the case returned calls.”

Putting one’s life on display is probably the kind of thing that artists can get into, but I wouldn’t recommend the activity for the average person. Having dabbled a bit in lifelogging myself, I can say that recording one’s life can be stressful: You never know who could watch or listen to those lifelogs at any point down the road, so you suffer from a kind of self-censorship whenever the recorder (or “memex”) is running. It’s also a tricky legal landscape — you have to figure out whether recording other people is legal in your state.

There is also the whole question of whether the material you gather can be used against you in court. Leana Golubchik, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Southern California, has wondered whether authorities can subpoena details about people’s private lives from their lifelogging archives.

This doesn’t seem to be something Mr. Elahi is worried about — or, if he is worried, the concern is nothing compared to the ordeal of being accused of something he didn’t do. —Scott Carlson

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