Technologies: C, Director, Flash, Java, libpcap, Objective-C, PacketX, Perl, Pd, Processing, tcpdump, Visual Basic, winpcap
Keywords: hacktivism, Software art, surveillance, tool, collaboration
"If stealing passwords is your lamer pastime, then please leave us out of it. CarnivorePE is a creative project that, while technologically invasive, is in fact respectful of existing laws and individual privacy. You should be too."
Computer networks empower us to share information, but they also make it easier for governments and corporations to monitor our electronic communications. In the 1990s, the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used a digital wiretapping software application called Carnivore to surveil traffic flowing through the servers of Internet service providers. This Orwellian technology enabled agents to read e-mail messages and eavesdrop on the chat-room conversations of ordinary citizens. In response to this high-tech form of state surveillance, a loose-knit team of artists calling themselves Radical Software Group, or RSG, developed CarnivorePE (PE signifies "Personal Edition). RSG was founded by Alex Galloway and is named after Radical Software, a magazine about experimental video published in the 1970s.
CarnivorePE is a Software art project that uses an open-source tool called a packet sniffer to listen in on the network on which it is installed. Like the FBI's ominously named Carnivore, CarnivorePE invisibly detects the packets of data that make up e-mails sent and received, text and images posted online, and Web sites browsed by individuals on the network. But the similarity ends there. Whereas the FBI uses its surveillance software to spy on suspected criminals, RSG uses the data harvested by CarnivorePE as raw material for artistic interfaces, called "clients," which are produced by a variety of New Media artists. Like other works of New Media art, such as Raqs Media Collective's OPUS, CarnivorePE functions as a platform or tool for artists.
Clients developed for CarnivorePE include the abstract Amalgamatmosphere (2001), by Joshua Davis, Branden Hall, and Shapeshifter, a Flash interface in which brightly hued translucent circles represent each active network user. The color of each circle reflects a specific activity: deep green if someone is using AOL, for example, or dark blue for Web-surfing. The circles enlarge to indicate increased user activity, and as they expand, they draw other circles towards them, as if by gravitational pull.
Other CarnivorePE clients emphasize the political implications of network surveillance. For example, Guernica, by the New Media art duo Entropy8Zuper!, envisions the network as a dystopian world, a barren globe rendered in black and white. Planes orbit the planet, representing fragments of e-mail messages. Other types of data are visualized as rockets, buildings, oil pumps, and roads. The work's title and monochromatic palette derive from Picasso's 1937 painting Guernica, a disturbing cry against the violence of war. On the Entropy8Zuper! Web site, their Guernica is accompanied by the following warning: "MULTINATIONAL CORPORATE STRATEGIES DEFINE THE POLITICAL AGENDA OF YOUR GOVERNMENT - ENTROPY8ZUPER! INTERNET DATA CLIENTS INVESTIGATE THE BITS THAT STREAM THROUGH YOUR COMPUTER AND EXPOSE THEIR TRUE CONTENT - INFORMATION EQUALS PROPAGANDA."
Police State, a CarnivorePE client by Jonah Brucker-Cohen, is a physical installation in which a fleet of modified toy police cars move in response to keywords associated with terrorism. According to the artist, "the data being 'snooped' by the authorities is the same data used to control the police vehicles. Thus the police become puppets of their own surveillance." The synchronized movements of these radio-controlled toys create balletic formations on the floor, suggesting that the police response to the threat of terrorism is itself a kind of absurd dance. Like the other CarnivorePE clients, Police State transforms surveillance from a covert activity into an artistic spectacle.