According to German law, it’s illegal for the government to spy on its citizens. Well, the Germans thought of a crafty little way around that – they outsourced the spying to the NSA and its UK equivalent, the GCHQ, as a way of upholding their own law while keeping tabs on their citizens. Essentially, it was the espionage version of having their cake and eating it too. When news broke of this operation in 2013, well, let’s just say many Germans weren’t too thrilled.
A mentality was born, one very much in the realm of, “You want something to spy on? We’ll give you something to spy on!” This was taken to the extreme by artists Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter, who spearheaded a project entitled “Can You Hear Me?” The two installed a network of makeshift antennas made from cans on top of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin, with another giant antenna situated on the roof of the Academy of Arts.
Why these spots? As it turns out, they’re nestled conveniently in between the listening posts for the NSA and GCHQ. Their installation created an open communication network, allowing anyone to anonymously send messages, calls, emails, texts and share files and documents through any Wi-Fi compatible device. Best of all, the whole operation is legal.
“If people are spying on us, it stands to reason that they have to listen to what we are saying,” Jud said in a TED Talk on his project. And because people knew somebody was listening, they used this open communication network to troll the NSA hardcore. Some utilized the installation to poke fun at the situation, making light of the NSA’s spying and seemingly omnipotent power, with one message reading, “@NSA My neighbors are noisy. Please send a drone strike.” Others who are far more upset about their privacy and liberties being encroached upon decided to go for the jugular: “Agents, what twisted story of yourself will you tell your grandchildren?”
More than 15,000 messages were sent through Jud and Wachter’s installation, a hefty pile of communications the NSA and GCHQ undoubtedly had to begrudgingly sift through. This being an open communication network, inclusivity should be encouraged – and it was. Jud and Wachter invited government agencies and the embassies to participate in their project, and surprisingly, many accepted this open invite. Files began to appear on the network, including leaked classified documents from Parliamentary investigation commissions.
Ultimately, Jud argues that this project is meant to highlight how competing political forces are stifling our ability to connect on a global scale, leading to a squandering of our freedom of speech. He states that the main message of this project is that “it is only in truly exposing ourselves, through the transformative power of this experience, that we can overcome prejudice and exclusion.” To get a more in-depth insight into this astounding project, you can check out Jud’s full TED talk below.