Exploring the Artistic Side of Cybersecurity
Undeleted exhibit shows how digital information lives on
The digital debris people leave behind when they discard their smartphones for a newer model is the subject of an eye-opening arts and design project funded by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI).
Michael McDermott, an assistant professor in graphic design in George Mason University’s School of Art, created 80 unique videos from 14 different cell phones showing easily recovered or simply never deleted images, texts, web histories, location data, and videos.
Undeleted is already on display at the Tracked & Traced exhibition created by the Science Gallery Detroit for the MSU Museum on Michigan State’s campus. There will be another show at Mason’s Fairfax campus in November with a different set of information on exhibit. Follow the project’s progress via @undeleted.works on Instagram.
“The goal of the project is for people to see themselves in the information presented from the phones,” McDermott explained. “I want to get people to consider their own information and what they can do to protect that information when getting rid of a device. I think a lot of people don’t consider the volume of data on their phones and that there are tools available for someone to extract that data if it is there. I hope people walk away thinking that they need to be more careful about their digital-selves.”
Some phone owners did a good job of making sure their phones were reset and their data wasn’t available to anyone else, McDermott said. Others weren’t so careful––they left behind lots of personal information without as much as a PIN to protect the data.
He purchased 89 phones from Ebay and first checked if they charged and turned on. If they worked, McDermott plugged the phones into a program called XRY, which can extract information if it exists. He’d then sort through the extracted files for items from the phone’s former owner to create the videos.
McDermott said he made sure people or their info can’t be identified in the exhibit. “The information that I edited out was photographs of faces and images of personal information like checks, drivers’ licenses, passports, tax forms, and other things like that,” he said.
CCI Executive Director Luiz DaSilva said he hopes the Undeleted exhibit helps people look at cybersecurity from a new perspective. “The CCI Building Bridges Arts and Design Collaboration Program is intended to spark a fresh understanding of cybersecurity and show how cybersecurity is woven into our daily lives. Michael’s project shines a light on basic and very important data protection steps that we often forget to take. I can’t wait to also see the results of the other funded projects.”