Version 1.7 a new dawn

lecture: Superheroes Still Need Phoneboxes

The art of making a free phonebox and the culture of anonymous communication


This talk asks how we might plan for the continuation of a privacy sustaining internet in light of growing trends in enforced identity checking and demonisation of everyday anonymity. It presents a 'free phonebox' project, which was tested at the FutureEverything art and technology festival in 2014, as an example of a social-technical system that promotes identity ambiguity in communication through the sharing of 'free' mobile phone minutes between strangers.

The project presented in this talk uses a computer running debian to connect a USB handset to one of a number of 'donor' mobile phones by acting as a bluetooth handsfree headset to each of the mobiles. The project is based on No Hands a GPLv2 implementation of the Bluetooth HFP 1.5 Hands Free Protocol. A free phonebox that randomly assigns calls made to one of the participating mobiles nearby acts a little like a low-tech remailer (mix network node). Lending strangers your phone creates 'data chaff' that helps to muddy the call record metadata logs that otherwise tie your device to you as a form of identification and tracking. It provides (some) deniability for any calls made while nearby the phonebox. Borrowing a stranger's phone lets you call someone without revealing yourself through caller-id. The close range of bluetooth, imposes a geographic limit on users.

This talk considers why a project like a free phonebox may be useful in countering growing moves to criminalise anonymous communication. People generally see the 'free time' in their mobile cell phone call plans as something that belongs to them. Lending someone in need your phone is also seen as charitable and positive. Therefore, a system that shares phone minutes between strangers provides an easier forum for debate around preservation of anonymity in communication than a similar project lending wifi connectivity. Open wifi has been gradually characterised as a tool for malicious hackers, unethical pirates and tech-savvy criminals despite the significant advantages universal connectivity could offer. Historical examples of anonymising connectivity including phoneboxes and postal systems are discussed.

The public phonebox in particular has long been associated with elements of privacy, secrecy and anonymity. The physical box affords a semi-private space in a public setting. Sound is difficult to overhear, but the caller is still in view of those nearby. Phoneboxes have historically used an anonymous payment system of coins, and require no identity authentication for access. In many countries policies of regulating call costs and mandating maintained phonebox coverage have established phoneboxes as anonymous connectivity commons. Many accounts of phoneboxes in popular culture portray them as valued resources of personal independence. Phoneboxes often provide the backdrop for narratives of family contact, emergency assistance or first kisses. The cheap and near universal nature of the phonebox makes them a recognisable anchor of reliability in new situations and locations. I would argue it is no coincidence that Superman turns to the phonebox for a moment of privacy when changing from one pseudonym to another.

Ben Dalton is an artist and academic researcher trained in physics, electronics and communication design, who has worked on projects on distributed sensor networks and ubiquitous computing at the MIT Media Lab, USA, big screens and pocket screens in public space at Leeds Beckett University, UK, the aesthetic, ethical and spatial dimensions of the politics of data at the National Academy of Art & Design in Bergen (KHiB), Norway, and digital pseudonymity at the Royal College of Art, UK. He has presented recent work on identity and pseudonmyity at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) London, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) Liverpool, FutureEverything Manchester, Today's Art The Hague, Abandon Normal Devices Liverpool, World Wide Web Conference (WWW2013) Rio de Janeiro, Sensuous Knowledge Bergen, and Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) Newcastle.