< The Transparency Grenade


Friday, March 02, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  For those of you who cherish anonymity, beware the transparency grenade. Berlin-based artist Julian Oliver has crafted an object that looks just like [LAUGHS] the Russian F1 hand grenade you so often see in war movies. But when you pull the pin on this grenade, it doesn’t explode in fire and bits of shrapnel; it captures nearby audio and information from local wireless signals and explodes that information onto the Internet. Oliver says his one-of-a-kind transparency grenade may be shaped like a standard munition, but it’s packed with gadgets and layered with silver and way too precious for war.

JULIAN OLIVER:  I put so much money and, and care into the aesthetics of the object, working with a local metalworker, Suzanne Stauch, that I’m very reluctant to throw the thing.

BOB GARFIELD:  It’s not transparent, it’s more like translucent.

JULIAN OLIVER:  That was deliberate. I mean, when you’ve got the little LED’s blinking away on the inside and the tiny computer doing its work, the whole thing kind of glows. That itself is very attractive.


But more than that, by making it not entirely transparent, people find themselves peering into the object, if you like, or at least attempting to, to see what’s inside. And that very gesture itself expresses a lot of the overall conceptual frame of the project, to encourage a bit of peering, you know, to find those little secrets.

BOB GARFIELD:  What exactly makes it a grenade?

JULIAN OLIVER:  Recently, with some of the leak efforts of the likes of WikiLeaks, we’ve seen something as immaterial as data shaking at the walls of institutions, and I wanted to, to reference very much the volatility of data, the fear of it escaping, the fear of it falling into the wrong hands, etc., etc. And all that anxiety is somehow best represented by an object that looks like it’s going to explode.

BOB GARFIELD:  And the way it explodes is that when you pull the pin, it takes the ambient wireless signals from a nearby router or from a cell phone and it just distributes all of those signals outward?

JULIAN OLIVER:  Well, when you pull the pin, all of the audio that’s available to the tiny microphone on the actual device and any wireless network packets within its reach, all of that data is mined by software on my server that pulls HTML fragments, emails and places it on a map at the location of the detonation. People can visit the map and then, as opposed to seeing fragments of buildings, one sees data distributed over the map at that sort of symbolic detonation. And the audio is available alongside.

BOB GARFIELD:  If I wanted to render myself invulnerable to the effects of the transparency grenade, the first thing I would have to do is secure my wireless network. If I have a code to get into my router, the transparency grenade cannot decode it, correct?

JULIAN OLIVER:  There is some encryption which is extraordinarily easy to break. I mean, the – the best way, of course, to make yourself invulnerable to something like this grenade is to drive with your meeting partners in a car to a forest, leave your cell phones in the car and go for a walk –


-and have your meeting in the sun somewhere.


Part of the project is very much to draw attention to how our increased dependence on technology makes us a little more vulnerable.

BOB GARFIELD:  You have no malicious plans for this, I gather. You built it to show that it could be built?

JULIAN OLIVER:  It’s mostly a project to draw attention to what I see to be a very worrying lack of transparency in the – in the corporate and governmental sector. And I think many people feel more in the dark than ever before, increasingly subjects, rather than partners of their governments and their agendas. And the transparency grenade is itself a kind of symbolic container for all of these different important tensions.

BOB GARFIELD:  Yes, symbolic for now, maybe. But you have plans for a phone app for this, right, so that it wouldn’t just be a magnificent museum piece representing the society’s gathering vulnerabilities; it’s something I can download to my phone and actually unleash on others?

JULIAN OLIVER:  I will provide an application - I’m working on it right now  - that people can use to study how this kind of a system works and also, yeah, to use it should they have a worthy need for it. I, I will leave it entirely up to them. They can install the app and, and run it at their own risk.

BOB GARFIELD:  So what happens if the software is embraced by a criminal or a vandal? What have you unleashed here?

JULIAN OLIVER:  I would be very surprised were it not already in deployment in some form the world over. Security researchers and people that do penetration testing of corporations and offices and the like, what they’re doing is they – is they’re showing points of vulnerability and simultaneously revealing to those that are dependent on that technology just how dangerous ignorance of your technological environment can be.


And so, I think that from that perspective, I firmly situate it as an educational project as much as a tool. I would hope that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands but, again, I’m sure that if the wrong hands are out there, they’ve already built it.

BOB GARFIELD:  Julian, thank you very much.

JULIAN OLIVER:  A pleasure, thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:  Julian Oliver is an artist based in Berlin.