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East Lansing Art Installation Draws Attention To Lack Of Privacy Tied To Google Street View

photo of a person pasted on a green wall. The person has short hair, dark boots, a black skirt and white tank top with a tote bag. Their face is blurred out.
Sophia Saliby
/
WKAR
Google Street View captured a photo of this person while mapping out East Lansing.

The Michigan State University Museum’s newest exhibit focuses on how surveillance from governments, companies, and individuals impacts our society.

It’s called “Tracked and Traced” and features works from artists around the world.

Paolo Cirio is one of those artists. His installation, "Street Ghosts," pulls photos of people found on Google Street View and posts them at the same physical locations from where they were taken.

Some of these photos have been placed around East Lansing right now.

Cirio joined WKAR's Sophia Saliby to discuss the piece.

Interview Highlights

On Where The Idea For The Project Came From

It came from the perception of the idea of what we see as private information but also how we see public information, and how all [of a] sudden these private companies are capturing all this information, whatever is public or private, and they publish it, but also monetize it, without really asking permission not only to the citizens, but also to the city [and] to the state, well, even from other companies.

On Why He Describes The Photos As "Ghostly Human Bodies"

They are basically the image of us, of people that are trapped inside the server of Google. And they sometimes come back in this form, in this blurred form [or] glitchy form. And that's what happens every day on the internet, right, on the, let's call it, a digital world. But it actually can happen also in the physical world [and] in our personal life, in our, you know, real life. And that's really the case with this piece where you walk on the street, down to your city, and you see the picture of yourself, eventually, taken by Google 10 years ago, and it's right there on your corner, and it's there forever.

On What The Project Says About Our Perceptions Of Privacy

It can really trigger in us what is the perception of reality, of today. So, you get people that get, you know, kind of shocked about the idea of aiming a picture of themselves on a public, physical wall, but they don't care if that same picture is on the monitor, on the internet [and] available to everyone around the world.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

The Michigan State University Museum’s newest exhibit focuses on how surveillance from governments, companies and individuals impacts our society.

It’s called “Tracked and Traced” and features works from artists around the world.

Paolo Cirio is one of those artists. His installation is called "Street Ghosts." It pulls photos of people found on Google Street View and posts them at the same physical locations from where they were taken.

You can see some of these photos around East Lansing right now.

Cirio is joining me to discuss the piece. Thank you for being here.

Paolo Cirio: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Saliby: So, where did this idea come from?

Cirio: Well, the project actually started in 2012, so it is quite a few years that I am doing it all over the world. And well, it came from the perception of the idea of what we see as private information but also how we see public information, and how all [of a] sudden these private companies are capturing all this information, whatever is public or private, and they publish it, but also monetize it, without really asking permission not only to the citizens, but also to the city, to the state, and well, even from other companies.

All [of a] sudden these private companies are capturing all this information, whatever is public or private, and they publish it, but also monetize it, without really asking permission not only to the citizens, but also to the city [and] to the state, well, even from other companies.

That's how they became such powerful entities and also monopolies in the market. So, you can imagine we are talking about 10 years ago, the perception of what was privacy was still very blurred. But after all, you know, we're still in the same situation after all these years.

Saliby: You describe these photos as kind of "ghostly human bodies."

They are pictures of people, but they can be grainy [and] the face of each person has been blurred. Why are these people ghosts in your view?

Cirio: Well, because they come from the past. These pictures were taken by Google a few years ago, sometimes. Well, we talked about 10 years ago, sometimes even before, because they started to capture those pictures in 2007. So, it's quite a few years.

And they are basically the image of us, of people that are trapped inside the server of Google. And they sometimes come back in this form, in this blurred form [or] glitchy form. And that's what happens every day on the internet, right, on the, let's call it, a digital world.

But it actually can happen also in the physical world [and] in our personal life, in our, you know, real life. And that's really the case with this piece where you walk on the street, down to your city, and you see the picture of yourself, eventually, taken by Google 10 years ago, and it's right there on your corner, and it's there forever.

And sometimes it comes back and probably will come back even after you, maybe 100 years or 200 years. Who knows about our data in this kind of long term, you know, long time? Let's see what we will be. So, that's how we are all ghosts of this digital hell, I would say.

Saliby: Has Google ever reached out to you and told you to stop the project or modify it in any way?

Cirio: No. Google doesn't really do that. They don't intervene [or] engage in this way, when there is someone that tries to criticize them. They usually ignore these kind of comments.

Some other companies they do react, you know, like, I did another project with Facebook, and they're very reactive on this kind of stuff. But Google [tries] to ignore these things.

There's nothing you can do about this, and so it's just taking from the internet, printing it and pasting it on the wall.

Definitely, some people reacted because they did recognize themselves in the pictures. They didn't really get upset. I mean, it's also like, kind of like a funny, ironic project anyway. And the point is that picture is on the internet anyway, you know, so, it's kind of already exposed. I mean, there's nothing you can do about this, and so it's just taking from the internet, printing it and pasting it on the wall.

Saliby: I mean, it sounds really easy. What do you think that says about kind of how our society views privacy these days that, you know, we're kind of fine with random companies taking pictures of us at random times, allowing it on the internet without paying us, you know, all of this?

Cirio: Yeah, well, it is very easy, but [at the] same time, it can really trigger in us what is the perception of reality, of today. So, you get people that get, you know, kind of shocked about the idea of aiming a picture of themselves on a public, physical wall, but they don't care if that same picture is on the monitor, on the internet [and] available to everyone around the world.

You get people that get, you know, kind of shocked about the idea of aiming a picture of themselves on a public, physical wall, but they don't care if that same picture is on the monitor, on the internet [and] available to everyone around the world.

So, that's kind of like, you know, it's just the way we see things, and we understand things in terms of thinking, "Okay, that wall in our city, in our town, is much more public than the internet," which makes no sense in these days, of course. But because our brains are wired in this way since centuries, we still perceive things that way.

So, it will take, who knows, how many years or how many generations to understand that the internet is much more public than the wall down the street. So, that means how private information is exposed to everyone or, you know, strangers, rather than people that already know about us.

Saliby: Like you've said, you've installed "Street Ghosts" in cities across the world for the better part of a decade.

What have you learned about privacy on the internet during that time, I guess, through this project, and I know, quite a bit of your work is tied to this?

Cirio: Well, it's pretty interesting because since it's a cultural understanding of what is privacy after all. It's about perception. What you learn, for instance, that, like, Germans don't really like Street View. They really get upset. So, for instance, in Germany, they blur everything. They especially they want to blur their houses. So, if you go with Google Street View, in Berlin or in Germany, wherever, and you look at the streets, everything is blurred, and especially the front of their houses, because they really do care about their private life.

And in some places, Switzerland, I think it's even forbidden in some towns. They asked to remove everything, or they didn't want to have Google coming back.

And then of course, instead, if you go to the U.S., the idea of privacy is much different. I wouldn't say that people [don't] care about it, but definitely, probably because of the sociality of the American culture, let's say, definitely, people share much more that kind of information, I will say.

So, these are just to compare two countries, and of course, there are many other situations, and then it gets also very, [geopolitical], you know. Like everything mapped is a weapon, you know, knowing your enemies or foreign countries around the world is the greatest weapon.

It's not only privacy, it's actually power, you know, the power of knowledge that Google is allowed to, you know, grow exponentially.

And so if you talk to Russians, they will say "Why would we allow Americans to map out and take pictures of every corner of our city. It sounds like, you know, letting them walk in our cities." So, that's also the other part of this. You know, it's not only privacy, it's actually power, you know, the power of knowledge that Google is allowed to, you know, grow exponentially, and that's how they're so powerful.

Saliby: Paolo Cirio is an artist who divides his time between Europe and the U.S.

You can see his installation, "Street Ghosts" around East Lansing now as part of the MSU Museum's exhibit, "Tracked and Traced." Thank you for joining me.

Cirio: Thank you to you.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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