Illustration by Gauraang Biyani, Melinda Szekeres

David Darts on Privacy in a Digital Reality

Associate Dean of Arts David Darts shares his sentiments on exercising one's right to privacy in the midst of living in a technologically-driven generation.

Feb 5, 2017

David Darts is the Associate Dean of Arts and Program Head of Art and Art History at NYU Abu Dhabi. He teaches Nomads, the popular Art Core curriculum class which, in its wake, leaves dwellings and handcrafted furniture in the Arts Center. When he is not devising another technique of bending plywood, he is exploring the convergence of society and technology through art and design.
As a longtime educator, Darts has witnessed the evolving nature of technology and internet in the classroom. His students are now perpetually connected, and it is hard for him to remember when this wasn’t the case. He remembers one of his summer classes in Venice almost a decade ago, where the architecture inhibited mobile phone reception. On this occasion, he witnessed students go through a technology withdrawal. Their mobile devices had been reduced to bricks.
Sometimes he is nostalgic for the analogue world, but he would never want to go back in time. Instead, a couple of times a year, he looks forward to spending time in his off-the-grid cabin on a little island near Seattle — a place only accessible via a boat ride, followed by a dirt path. Darts has returned regularly to the cabin for years: it is a haven for biking, wood-chopping, studio work and being in tune with nature. Darts and his spouse bought the place as a way for their children to disconnect from technology and reconnect to the physical realm.
“It’s hard for them, even more than for me, because they are always used to being online,” he noted. His children grew up in Manhattan and now live in Abu Dhabi. This differs greatly from Darts’ own childhood. Not so long ago, Darts was able to disappear and hitchhike in Europe after his studies, just having to call home once a month to assure his parents that he was alive.
While he enjoys the beauty in the disruptions of his digital reality, Darts is not a technophobe. He cites Neil Postman, the founder of NYU’s Media, Culture and Communication program: “Technology giveth and technology taketh away.” Darts is wary of the challenge that our ever-connected world poses for privacy. We let browsers store all our history and use our social media accounts to sign in without a second thought. One needs to actively carve out moments of privacy; these are efforts that in themselves are telling and can make others suspicious.
“We should fight for privacy not because we have something to hide necessarily but because there are people that do have something to hide ... because it keeps them safe,” Darts said.
His sentiment shares similarities with Edward Snowden’s statement in which Snowden compares the claim that not having anything to hide means not caring about privacy with the claim that not caring about free speech means not having anything to say. Darts placed a high importance on a private environment free from judgement or categorizations, especially as spaces for identity exploration. He further qualifies his beliefs by calling nonsense on the idea that people do not have things to hide.
In his arts practice, Darts has assumed the responsibility of creating private environments. A few years ago he developed the PirateBox, a DIY anonymous offline file-sharing and communications system. Following its success, Darts has begun prototyping Bitcave, a router encrypting tool, something that is still a work in progress.
“One of the cool things about the internet is that whatever awesome idea you have, somebody else is probably having it or had it already and so as I was developing [Bitcave] other people around the world came up with different versions,” Darts said, explaining why he had slowed down work on his second privacy tool.
“I’m not a coder … I’m a hacker, an artist... I am not nearly knowledgeable enough about encryption or the technologies that are required to [facilitate it]... I didn’t want to put out a technology that might not be actually safe for people to use that actually needed it,” Darts further explained. “Mine was more of art project, it was a provocation.”
While successful as prototypes, Darts thinks of both PirateBox and Bitcave as art projects, in part because they are not designed to be scalable. PirateBox had gained momentum and recognition even in form of camps— held in Berlin, Germany and Lille, France — that brought together developers, hackers and artists for a weekend of making and reflecting similar apps. What is important for him is that this offline networking system got people talking and many without a coding or technology background could learn and build a PirateBox for themselves. The project is now available on the internet for further development — granting the right to others to freely copy, distribute and transform his work according to the principles of copyleft. He jokes that the project is now in college, with Darts paying for its upkeep in the form of paying for his website servers, occasionally answering some forum questions.
At NYUAD, Darts has organized talks on privacy and surveillance and his teaching reflects the reality and uncertainty about what could happen to our internet footprints. The internet and the way we communicate also inform the artwork of his students. He sees students responding positively and knowledgeably to the critical undercurrent of NYUAD’s Interactive Media and Technology program.
Darts is not surprised by these student reactions, partly because of the awareness they have of the surveillance of built environments, like the cameras that punctuate the NYUAD campus and the generally low number of private spaces. He also points to online monitoring in the UAE, but quickly acknowledges that the National Security Agency in the U.S. is not that different and, in fact, has a reach that encompasses the world.
Melinda Szekeres is Features Editor. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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