[ISN] Museum's Cyberpeeping Artwork Has Its Plug Pulled

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Wed May 15 2002 - 00:59:56 PDT

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    May 13, 2002
    An Internet-based artwork in an exhibition at the New Museum of 
    Contemporary Art was taken offline on Friday because the work was 
    conducting surveillance of outside computers. It is not clear yet who 
    is responsible for the blacking out - the artists, the museum or its 
    Internet service provider - but the action illuminates the work's 
    central theme: the tension between public and private control of the 
    Internet. The shutdown also shows how cyberspace's gray areas can 
    enshroud museums as they embrace the evolving medium. 
    The work in question is "Minds of Concern: Breaking News," created by 
    Knowbotic Research, a group of digital artists in Switzerland. The 
    piece is part of "Open Source Art Hack," an exhibition at the New 
    Museum that runs through June 30. The work can be viewed as an 
    installation in the museum's SoHo galleries or online at 
    newmuseum.org. Although the installation is still in place, and the 
    work's Web site remains live, the port-scanning software that is its 
    central feature was disabled Friday evening and was inactive yesterday 
    Port scanning sounds like a cruise-ship captain's task. The term 
    actually refers to a technique for surveying how other computers are 
    connected to the Internet. The software essentially strolls through 
    the neighborhood in search of windows that have been left open. Merely 
    noticing where they are is no crime. Things get dicier, though, if 
    what is seen is conveyed to a ne'er-do-well relative, who then breaks 
    in somewhere, rearranges the furniture and makes off with a 
    gem-encrusted putter.
    One court has ruled that port scanning is legal so long as it does not 
    intrude upon or damage the computers that are being scanned. Internet 
    service providers, however, generally prohibit the practice, which can 
    cause online traffic jams. That prohibition appears to be what led to 
    the shutdown.
    After the Knowbotic work started its peeping, the Internet service 
    provider for one of the targets of the scan complained to the museum's 
    Internet service provider, Logicworks. In turn, Logicworks notified 
    the museum that port scanning violated its policies. On Friday, Lauren 
    Tehan, a museum spokeswoman, said the museum was seeking a creative 
    technical solution to keep the work online.
    That effort did not succeed. Ms. Tehan said the museum, at Logicworks' 
    request, shut down the work after the museum closed on Friday evening. 
    On Saturday morning, Christian Hübler of Knowbotic Research said the 
    group realized the port-scanning software had been disabled and 
    decided to move the work's Web site to an Internet service provider in 
    Germany. Ms. Tehan said that the museum suggested a way to put the 
    work back online but that Knowbotic rejected the proposal.
    The dispute calls attention to one of the very points the piece is 
    intended to make. Because the lines between public and private control 
    of the Internet are not yet clearly defined, what artists want to do 
    may be perfectly legal, but that does not mean they will be allowed do 
    Before the New Museum exhibition opened on May 3, Knowbotic Research 
    had already decided to remove the most troublesome features of the 
    port-scanning software. Mr. Hübler said the group changed the work 
    after consulting with a lawyer who specializes in Internet law. "I 
    wanted to know the situation I'm in," Mr. Hübler said, "because when I 
    work with the border as an artist, I want to know at least what the 
    border might be."
    When it is functioning, "Minds of Concern" resembles a slot machine. 
    Viewers are prompted to scan the computer ports of organizations that 
    protested in February against the World Economic Forum. While colored 
    lights flash, a list of the vulnerable ports and the methods that 
    might be employed to "crack," or penetrate, them to gain access to 
    private information scrolls across the bottom of the screen. No 
    internal information is exposed, but the threat is suggested.
    European digital artists are more politicized than their American 
    counterparts, and "Minds" is designed to advance a social agenda. By 
    choosing to explore the computers of anti-globalization groups instead 
    of Nike or Coca-Cola, Knowbotic is warning those groups that they are 
    at risk of losing sensitive data.
    But to present the work at the New Museum, Knowbotic had to defang it. 
    At first, the group reviewed the 800 tools in the port-scanning 
    program and removed 200 it deemed intrusive or malicious. After 
    consulting with a lawyer, the group then encrypted the name of the 
    organization being scanned because it was unsure if publishing the 
    information was illegal. In place of the name on the screen, one saw 
    the phrase "artistic self-censorship."
    The group's disappointment in having to scale back the work was 
    obvious in a message to an electronic mailing list: "Due to the 
    ubiquitous paranoia and threat of getting sued, the museum and the 
    curators made it very clear to us that we as artists are 100 percent 
    alone and private in any legal dispute."
    There is a sense of a missed opportunity here. The dozen works in 
    "Open Source Art Hack" are intended to prompt discussion about the 
    public versus the private in cyberspace while demonstrating how 
    artists "hack," or misuse technology, to creative effect. 
    Port-scanning software, for instance, is meant to be used for 
    reconnaissance, yet Knowbotic has made it a political tool.
    But "Minds of Concern" is also the only online work in the exhibition 
    to operate in a legal gray area. In its fully functional state, it had 
    the potential to cause a ruckus that might have yielded some 
    black-and-white rulings. But instead, the exhibition commits no real 
    Steve Dietz, the new-media curator at the Walker Art Center in 
    Minneapolis, was one of the exhibition's curators. Its goal, he said, 
    "was more nuanced than bringing cracking to the dull havens of a 
    "Being bad and doing something illegal hold very little interest for 
    me," he said, "but being tactical and creative hold a great deal.`
    Artists like to be bad, and although museums are sometimes their 
    targets, they can also serve as shields when artists become 
    controversial. A recent example was the exhibition "Mirroring Evil: 
    Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," for which the Jewish Museum, not the 
    participating artists, took most of the heat.
    As museums embrace cyberspace, its fuzzy rules are posing unfamiliar 
    problems, and "Minds of Concern: Breaking News" is a case in point. As 
    for how well those issues can be raised within a museum's walls, Lisa 
    Phillips, director of the New Museum, said: "That really is the 
    dilemma. We can only go so far."
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