This Light Bulb Is Listening

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 23 2014 6:00 PM

This Light Bulb Is Listening

light_bulb
It looks like a light bulb, but the Conversnitch is listening.

Photo from Conversnitch.

If you’re starting to feel a little paranoid about Internet security and surveillance … this is just going to make it worse. Two artists have created a device called Conversnitch that’s cheap to build, looks like a light bulb or lamp, and tweets quotes from conversations it overhears.

For $100 Kyle McDonald and Brian House can build an inconspicuous recording device that’s Internet-connected for easy tweeting. The conversnitch works anywhere that has wifi—a restaurant, library, or home, for instance—and uses a Raspberry Pi and a microphone (plus some type of clever disguise) to record audio. The artists pay to have the audio transcribed through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform.

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McDonald, an adjunct professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, told Wired, “This is stuff you can buy and have running in a few hours. … We recognize that this device can be used in an illegal way, and we will not admit to using it in that way. It has potentially been deployed in various places.”

House and McDonald aim to stir controversy, though, so questions that come up about privacy and legality aren’t so much hindrances as they are the point. Conversnitch is intentionally invasive to stimulate discussion about the controls Americans have over their privacy and the ways that their trust can be violated. It’s time to be vigilant. Trust no lamp.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.