ScareMail is Art

A newspaper columnist at the Chicago Tribune asked me this week if ScareMail is “potentially dangerous,” and whether it is “somewhat similar to jamming legitimate eavesdropping devices.” My response follows:

No, ScareMail is not dangerous. It’s an artwork about how systems interact with systems, about the role of language within those systems, how software enables surveillance, and about the challenges to privacy and free speech in the current political climate. On this last point, ScareMail draws attention to a flaw in the NSA’s thinking—that words in an email are the same thing as intent. Further, ScareMail proposes a model of privacy built on visibility and noise as opposed to one built on encryption and silence. 

ScareMail also demonstrates that very few people feel comfortable challenging the NSA; after thousands of visitors to the ScareMail website and international press attention, ScareMail has had few downloads. The number of people still using it after that initial download is probably much smaller. Clearly people are interested in challenging the NSA in some way, but not by attracting too much attention to themselves. 

Whether one could be private within ScareMail’s model is debatable. What is less debatable is that those with nefarious intent are unlikely to use ScareMail. They don’t want to attract NSA attention. They’re more likely to use encryption and to avoid commercial email services based in the USA. In other words, the NSA’s mass email surveillance isn’t catching who they want anyway.

Before the Internet, surveillance was a targeted operation, based on probable cause and the result of a warrant signed by a judge. This makes sense as it fits our due process clause of the Constitution and maintains appropriate checks and balances on police power.

What doesn’t make sense is taking advantage of new communications technologies in order to conduct mass unchecked surveillance on everyone without any sense of probable cause or due process. Searching our electronic text for keywords draws all kinds of people into government focus without any cause. ScareMail demonstrates this clearly, as any mail caught because of its ScareMail signature is an email whose “scary” words have no meaning.