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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A 'Transparency Grenade' for Would-Be Bradley Mannings

Conceptual art meets hacking.

  • February 22, 2012

In our post-WikiLeaks era, the image evoked by the phrase “whistle blower” isn’t dramatic enough. Bradley Manning did something more than merely blow a whistle. He kind of blew stuff up.

That thought must have been on Julian Oliver’s mind when he made the so-called “Transparency Grenade.” The Transparency Grendade looks like, well, a transparent grenade (it’s modeled after a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, to be precise). The device doesn’t actually explode and kill people, fortunately. The only thing it explodes is secrecy.

“Equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna,” Oliver explains on the Transparency Grenade site, “the Transparency Grenade captures network traffic and audio at the site and securely and anonymously streams it to a dedicated server where it is mined for information. Email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice extracted from this data are then presented on an online, public map, shown at the location of the detonation.” The notion is that you might be a civil servant outraged at what your department or agency is keeping hidden from the world. You storm into a meeting, pull the pin, and boom! It’s a data leak detonation.

If this sounds impractical, you should know that the Transparency Grenade is part of an art exhibition in Berlin, the Studio Weise 7 exhibition. It’s a one-off piece, made of a translucent resin and sterling silver. Julian Oliver is something of a hacker-cum-artist; he calls himself a “critical engineer” (one tenet of “The Critical Engineering Manifesto” is, “The Critical Engineer considers the exploit to be the most desirable form of exposure”).

But it’s more than an art installation; it’s the embodiment of an idea, one that Oliver intends to have live on in an Android app that would achieve the same functions as the grenade, only without raising eyebrows (and/or guns) at the security checkpoint. He says on his site that he’s working on an app for rooted Android devices that will mimic the grenade’s functionality while running stealthily on the background of users’ phones. “Naturally this is a little more practical than walking into a meeting with a grenade in your jacket pocket,” he writes.

“The very idea of an immaterial explosion with the power to shake the walls of institutions, businesses and political cultures–moving matter and people in its wake–is naturally attractive, not only in the conceptual sense,” Oliver told the site We Make Money Not Art, adding that he “wanted [the grenade] to look elegant, a bottle of high-class perfume, as much as a weapon.” Oliver, a longtime vegetarian, also said he would particularly like someone to pull the pin on one of these things in a high-level meeting in the agricultural sector.

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