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U. of Maryland Professor Sidesteps Big Brother Through Online Art

They watched him for six months.

Hasan Elahi, an art professor and the director of the Digital Cultures and Creativity program at the University of Maryland, was erroneously reported as a terrorist suspect and added to an FBI watch list in 2002 while at an airport in Detroit. Over the coming months, the FBI continually monitored the globe-trotting professor’s movements, phoning him at home and bringing him into their Florida offices for questioning and polygraph tests. And then, suddenly, he says, it was over.

But when Mr. Elahi asked for a letter saying he was cleared, the FBI told him they couldn’t provide him with one since he was never formally charged with anything. So, taking matters into his own hands, he started to track himself. “It was a preemptive action on my part,” Mr. Elahi told The Chronicle.

He began by uploading satellite images depicting his location and posting pictures taken with his cellphone onto his Web site, Tracking Transience. He snapped shots of everything, including storefronts, meals, and receipts, creating an intimate but complex portrayal of his whereabouts. At first the self-surveillance was meant only to keep the FBI from detaining him again during his extensive travels, but soon it transformed into an art project.

Mr. Elahi isn’t the first person to construct art from a digital record of his movements. An NYU professor had the same idea when he tried to implant a camera into the back of his head, though ultimately his body rejected it. Both projects have multiple meanings and messages behind them, touching on the themes of privacy, simulated time, and information.

His project, Mr. Elahi says, is intentionally user-unfriendly. “We’re in a culture and in an age where we want information neatly packaged. We want information easy to understand, and when you get things that really don’t make sense right away, people often get frustrated or lose interest in it.” He’s all about full disclosure, he says, but he wants visitors to the Web site to have to work for that information.

Who is visiting the site? “I’ve gotten hits from the executive office of the president,” he says. “It could be just someone on their lunch break, an intern. Or it could be Dick Cheney. We don’t know.” Government agencies regularly pop up in the Web logs, he says. “I’m just hopeful that they’re fans of art.”

The idea behind the project, once deemed radical by both its fans and critics, is now common practice. The introduction of Web sites like Facebook and Foursquare has made the concept of checking in online a normal activity, especially for young people. Disclosing our location, Mr. Elahi says, is now just another layer added to our everyday lives.

“It’s beautiful,” he laughed, “because now I’m obsolete.”

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