The prevalence of open wireless networks has transformed both computing and media consumption. Where reading news sites was the domain of the desk, it is now very easy to browse and engage with online content from your sofa, cafe or on the train.
Such networks are perceived to be inherently trustworthy. They are, it is assumed, provided by the "host", and therefore both secure, and secured. But, like many other facets in online media, this trust of both the network and the content available across it, can be manipulated.
Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev are Berlin-based artists with a project to address the potential of this manipulation. Extremely well versed in technology and coding, the possibilities of how to manipulate data resulted in their most recent project, Newstweek.
Oliver and Vasiliev explain the history. "Danja and I have been playing around a lot over the last couple of years with what we refer to as 'Network Insecurity', taking the network as a medium for rigorous, creative investigation. This particular device was conceptualised during the Chaos Computer Club's 27th congress, last year in Berlin. We installed an 'invisible' wall plug in the building, emitting a vast amount of wireless beacons, and found that it went physically unnoticed for days. We realised we were onto something, that an innocuous plug like this, with a tiny enough computer, could appear as part of the infrastructure, part of the building, commanding to be treated as such."
Newstweek is the final version of this "invisible" wall plug. Essentially a small computer, it maps network traffic through itself. This mapping is where the intevention occurs, and when Julian and Danja connect to it with root-level access, they run what is essentially a live "search and replace". Data is intercepted and replaced. The result is that web pages which look factually accurate and from a trusted source, have actually been changed.
The example in the video provides a thorough example of how it's done. To see the manipulation of a BBC News article, wind the video to 04:45.
Data is a bit like light – it travels around without our awareness. Because it travels in this way, it is vulnerable. "World views are carried in the air. Every day our very bodies are inadvertent conduits for other people's emails, SMS messages, web-pages, love letters, Facebook messages and PDFs. if the air we breathe is considered public, why not that which passes through it?"
Because of the interconnected nature of the network, the duo also aim to deliver a more accurate definition of connectivity. While the general assumption is that connecting to a network is safe and overt, clearly – and as many realise when spyware is uncovered on their PC – that is not the case. "We think that the networked personal computer is an oxymoron. It is in fact very impersonal, from the back-door like aspects of the operating system, to the vast number of other distant computers that are 'touched' with every transaction. People are very unaware of this, and a part of our project is to signal an educational alert to this extent. A wireless card on a phone or computer is actually technically referred to as a 'radio device' for a reason. All one needs to know is how to 'tune in' and combine a chain of free and open source tools- often even just using scripts and with minor modifications to operating system - to 'mischieve'.'"
Where a more two-way relationship does exist, is in the ability to provide digital content over a network that can be interacted with. In news websites, functionality such as "Have your say" is de rigeur, with many sites achieving popular success through the sheer volume of people voicing their opinions. However, this is entirely contextual. "The very idea of news, as a socio-political ideal, of being 'aware', has always been a target of modification: government lobbies, corporate lobbies, and political dispositions. Once lifted off paper into the network domain - once digital - it is truly up for modification. A device like Newstweek could be used for activism in this case, a means for citizens to 'fix back' the facts, to improve and/or correct the news, as it comes off the digital press."
Because Newstweek manipulates data, it could be suggested that it is not necessarily clarifying the news, but just giving someone else's view: the selective gatekeeper is still there, it has just changed its owner. Irrespective of whose content it is, the possibility of just changing the content not only addresses technical issues of security, but emotional issues of trust. Many research reports around the world conclude that changing the medium of news delivery to digital builds a greater level of trust. Oliver and Vasiliev make the point that "a strictly media-informed reality is a vulnerable reality".
However, they observe that irrespective of the change in trust of the source, the ability to personally interpret and filter such content is now addressing the fragile concept of selective gatekeeping. "It's the conversation online, the retweets, cross-site messenging, "did you see this?" emails that reassert and underline the authenticity of that content. This is a truly curious, unanticipated inversion of the almost boundless pliability of digital media, especially when used wirelessly. There's definitely been a shift, but not the one anyone expected."
The decentralisation of news content, and the increased possibilities of how to interpret and filter it, is something that appeals to Oliver and Vasiliev, and here, they see Newstweek as playing a deeper, more democratic role in the relationship between message, medium, and consumer. "It's certainly made it easier to distribute and manipulate widely publicly read information, to 'tweek'. The centralised model of the printing press has always had a small vulnerability of forgery at the receiving end, but the power of manipulation and tweeking is at the root, at the editor's office. The home-made press, the blog, has opened up possibility for distribution for citizen journalism. This kind of device can present news in a way that appears completely un-forged, now free from the forensic restraints and thus hiccups of paper. There is a Russian term, Samizdat, which literally means 'self-publish'. We propose Newstweek as a device to 'self re-publish'."
While Newstweek offers the ability to modify content in a subtle way, it is part of a larger global trend – not from artists, but from governments. Data from Reporters Without Borders illustrates a world increasingly seen through a filter of government-issued data surveillance.
Oliver and Vasiliev remark that this is effectively a not just "tweeking" small amounts of content, but a version of Newstweek that effects whole societies. "Just the other day the Hungarian government declared it was setting up a watchdog to ensure that all network-distributed content must present 'Fair and balanced views' (whatever that means). That's what we call a 'filter'".
Newstweek is available at newstweek.com.
Based in Berlin, Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev are artists with a technological focus. Julian's website is julianoliver.com, and he is @julian0liver on Twitter. Danja's website is k0a1a.net, and he is @k0a1a on Twitter.