Hey all! Here’s the current status of the privacy/anti-surveillance device I made as a part of my residency at Eyebeam.
The TL;DR version is this:
- It works (like it actually blocks with microphones…see below for sound)
- It’s a bigger project than just me.
- I’d love to partner with a hardware company/people who have the infrastructure to make products.
The longer version is as follows:
Here’s an explanatory video(no audio) I made for the FFFFF.AT GOLD show in San Francisco.
We now know that there are machines, cameras and algorithms everywhere that are listening to us. The creepiness and ensuing privacy debacle of products such Hello Barbie and the Samsung Smart Tv, both of which have microphones constantly listening, have been the most frequently mentioned products as of late.
But what about our smart phones, the personal tracker we carry everywhere? What about when you’re having a face-to-face conversation and you wish that the microphone would be turned off (but you still need to use your phone)? Or what about those apps that have access to your microphone? What are they doing with that data? Don’t you wish you could just ‘turn off’ different aspects of hardware, like your microphone or camera?
This requires a hardware, not a software solution because software is infinitely hackable but you can guarantee through hardware that software can’t work.
This device that we made is like taping over your webcam, but for audio.
This project is an ultrasonic security system that gives people the confidence to know that their smart phone microphones are non-invasively muted. It’s a collaboration with Eric Rosenthal, with whom I have been collaborating since he was my professor at ITP, along with Andy Sigler, who has also helped make some PCBs.
By pointing it at the smart phone microphone, it de-senses the microphones of the cellphone by applying a very high level ultrasonic signal that is inaudible to humans but can be heard by the microphones. When you record it and replay it, this is what it sounds like:
It’s been shown at:
- Eyebeam end of year show in DUMBO Jan-Feb 2015
- Queensland University of Technology in Australia, Apr-May 2015
- Eyebeam gala in Manhattan May 2015
- F.A.T. GOLD show at the Grey Area Foundation in San Francisco, CA. May-June 2015
- Listening Machines Conference put on by Microsoft Research and NYT R&D May 2015
The technology is effective but needs to be re-designed and re-engineered by a product designer, which I am not, so that it is a case or cradle for the entire phone. We began this project before the iPhone 6 came out, and were focusing primarily on the bottom microphones of the iPhone 4/5, but the iPhone 6 has four microphones (two top two bottom) which all need to be hit with a strong stream of ultrasonics for me to confidently say that it works as a privacy device. It needs a team to test and design it for all hardware versions. Keep in mind, the microphones that are used in modern smartphones are basically all the same MEMS mic. So the ultrasonics don’t necessarily need to be re-engineered (though we do need much smaller transducers), just the design of the object itself.
How do I get one???
A lot of people have expressed interest. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out.
We’ve already prototyped it and can prove that it works, now the goal is to make it an actual product. But it project needs corporate or institutional support. This could show up in a variety of ways.
Two options that I see:
1. The best option is that we partner with a hardware/product company. We’ve already done a lot of the work, and they have the infrastructure to make it happen. Win-win.
2. Someone angel-invests a couple hundred thousand dollars so we can hire a bunch of people and Eric Rosenthal and I bootstrap it ourselves towards a Kickstarter. A statement of work and estimated budget is available upon request.
I’d love to chat either irl or via email about how to make this thing a reality.
My contact info is here.
This work was developed while in residency at the Eyebeam Art & Technology Center and through a generous grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation.