Tracking the Google Trackers

Web Resident Joana Moll’s project Algorithms Allowed leads us to the opaque world of US embargoes and online tracking services. The artist and researcher – who lives between Barcelona and Berlin – has been researching online surveillance practices for many years. An experiment – she sold an US tracking services on Ebay, that she found within a North Korean site – led her to discover something strange: the piece of code got banned immediately. Now, for her web residency by Solitude & ZKM, curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli on the topic »Blowing the Whistle, Questioning Evidence«, she investigated on the topic further.

Clara Herrmann: As you explain, Google trackers have been found within several websites owned by countries under US embargo. What does this imply and how did it become the starting point of your project?

Joana Moll: I’ve been researching online surveillance practices for many years and I strongly focused on online tracking within the Critical Interface Politics research group I co-founded at HANGAR, based in Barcelona. Nevertheless, the starting point of this projects was quite casual, everything started when Bani Brusadin contacted me to be part of a project called #exstrange, an online curatorial experiment that consisted of selling weird things in Ebay. Then, I came up with the idea of selling US tracking services, such as Google Analytics, found within a North Korean site. Funnily the tracker, a piece of code sold as a harmless .txt file, was immediately banned from Ebay, claiming that it violated US embargo policies. Right after, I thought that it would be really interesting to continue investigating such practices and extend the research to other heavily US embargoed countries.

CH: How do you find those tracking and online services you are researching for the project?

JM: The process has been quite »manual« during the first phase of the project (the results of which I’m publishing within the online residency). Basically I’ve looked for sites belonging to the countries and regions facing severe US embargoes (Cuba, Crimea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria) and I check the source code in order to identify the trackers. However, from now on I’ve started to do this automatically.

CH: What is the relation between those tracking services and the US?

JM: Most of the trackers I’ve found to date belong to Google and Facebook, two American corporations. According to the US embargo policy any transaction carried out with the embargoed countries I expose within my project is strictly prohibited unless they’ve requested a special permission. Thus, as these trackers have not been embedded to the sites by these American corporations directly but by the people that developed the websites, it is quite unlikely that such legal permission had been requested beforehand.

CH: What did you find out about the world of North Korea’s web?

JM: Prior to September 19th 2016, when a leak revealed that North Korea had just 28 sites registered with its own top-level domain – .kp – the country’s contribution to the world wide web remained a mystery. In North Korea, access to the Internet is reserved to a small number of government officials and tourists, while the rest of the population is just allowed to use a closed and heavily controlled national intranet service called Kwangmyong. The service opened in the year 2000 with the aim to become a national substitute for the global Internet.

CH: What do we see on the final project page for this web residency? Will you develop the project further?

JM: The final project page shows a selection of websites belonging to countries that have a very strict embargo policy from the US that contain US
trackers, such as Google Analytics and Facebook Connect among others.
The site gives general information on each site, such as the company or
organization which the site belongs to, the physical location of the website
and so on. Screenshots of the site and the tracker code embedded within
its source code are also available. Finally, the visitor can download a
pdf containing the original source code of every website that certifies
the presence of US trackers in US embargoed territories. The project is
an on-going research, so the list that I present in the project will
keep on increasing.

CH: What is your main interest as a researcher and how do you approach your questions and topics as an artist?

JM: My main interest is to reveal critical infrastructures and processes that remain hidden to most of the global citizenship, but still sculpt our reality and affect the way we think, behave, act, and, basically, define what means to be human to a large extent. However, we have very little control and power to intervene these processes. Thus, in my work, I strongly focus on developing pedagogical strategies aimed at disclosing how these structures and process work to a wide variety of public through research, texts, workshops and artworks.

CH: As the curator Tatiana Bazzichelli already mentions in her statement, we are seeing a relatively new field of artistic practice, where art is seen as a means for producing evidence of misconduct and wrongdoing, as well as a terrain of meta reflection on whistleblowing, leaking, and surveillance. How do you perceive your role as an artist in this specific context?

JM: As I stated previously my practice focuses on identifying, understanding and exposing critical processes that directly affect us as human beings. Within these processes there’s a wide range of misconduct and wrongdoing, which my work tries to make visible.

CH: Would you also consider yourself as an activist?

JM: That’s a tricky question that I’ve been asked many times. Once a friend told me that I’m more of an internet documentarist, and I agree. I’d say that activism is sort of implicit within the work I produce, artworks, research, texts and workshops, but I never considered myself an activist.

CH: As co-founder of the Critical Interface Politics Research Group at HANGAR you investigate on the material and computational architectures of the Internet that are often not considered or completely ignored by Internet users. What is your work like here, also in relation to the web residency project?

JM: My work at HANGAR integrates different activities, nevertheless the main one is directing and developing most of the research we’ve been doing since the end of 2015. As you already stated, the main goal of the research at HANGAR is to reveal the tangible and intangible agents that configure the Internet as it is, from infrastructures, interfaces, data flows, algorithms and environmental impacts of networks. The residency explores the ambiguous relationship between code, online tracking and geopolitics in the era of surveillance capitalism, which is something that we’ve already explored at HANGAR, but not in the context of embargoed countries.

CH: Website or user tracking is quite a common practice nowadays even carried out by art institutions to find out what people look at, how they walk around in an exhibition space, which might also influence curatorial decisions. What is your opinion on this – also as an artist?

JM: Yes, nowadays surveillance is ubiquitous, I mean, it’s not reserved to agencies and governments anymore. Instead, anybody running any online service can become a surveillance agent, like an art institution, as you just pointed out, or even my grandmother if she’d had enough coding skills. A huge problem is that many online tracking practices don’t alert the user that is being tracked. There’s an extreme lack of transparency in these issues and the final user is usually the most exploited and least rewarded. Yet, there’s another critical condition derived from online tracking practices, if a user doesn’t agree on being tracked he becomes automatically excluded from accessing and using any online service. In other words, either you voluntarily surrender to surveillance or you become isolated.