In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor: The Story of Aaron Brown

Installation of Linux on ASUS Chromebook
In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor: The Story of Aaron Brown

It was sometime in 2009 when I first learned about an online black market called “The Silk Road.” I then learned I had to use a utility called “Tor” to access it. I downloaded the Tor browser bundle, got it up and running, and connected to the site. Tor was slow, felt cumbersome, and was little more than an annoyance to me, a necessary inconvenience in order to browse pages of illicit, and non-illicit, products. All of it was hidden from “regular” internet users, and there was something electrifying and exciting about that. I always wanted to purchase *something.* Maybe a t-shirt? I just wanted to be a part of it. Over the next few years, I would jump on Tor every now and then, usually when I wanted to show someone “a crazy website where you could buy drugs.” It wasn’t until the beginning of 2013 that I began to really understand what Tor was.

In December 2012 I got a job with Taryn Simon as her production manager. Earlier that year she had worked with Aaron Swartz on a project called Image Atlas. I remember hearing the news of his suicide from my co-worker. At the time we were still doing work on Image Atlas, and I received an invite to contribute to the project on Heroku. Some of Aaron’s commits were recent enough to be visible in the git history. Aaron left his fair share of digital traces, but only three people had access to this private repository, so it felt different. It was an odd experience, to essentially stumble upon these traces of him. I don’t think I would have felt the need to do as much research as I eventually did had it not been for that. I began reading a lot about him, and what he stood for.

That research resulted in educating myself about internet privacy, and the contemporary scope of digital tracking. The entire infrastructure of the internet is built around the transfer of discrete packets of information, which require active attempts at obfuscation to conceal. The default protocol is plaintext, with distinct trails connecting all activities and connections. It quickly became apparent to me that services like Tor, which provide a fairly high level of anonymity, were serving purposes much greater than “The Silk Road.”

Private companies actively track everything we do online. They correlate and analyze the resulting data to compile profiles on all of us. Ads on the internet are sold in real-time and served to users based on those profiles. The internet you see is different than the internet I see, because advertisers know we are interested in different things. An argument can be made that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I get to see more of what I want, and less of what I don’t. What is so dubious is that it is completely invisible. Most people have no clue that it is happening. Which is especially dangerous given how much the advertising/PR industry is one of consumer control.

For example, there is a practice known colloquially as ‘astroturfing,’ which involves the use of fake social profiles to give the appearance of grassroots support, or dissent. In 2011, the Daily Kos reported on a leaked document from defense contractor HBGary which explains how one person can automate the actions of many personas:

“Using the assigned social media accounts we can automate the posting of content that is relevant to the persona. In this case there are specific social media strategy website RSS feeds we can subscribe to and then repost content on twitter with the appropriate hashtags. In fact using hashtags and gaming some location based check-in services we can make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise, as one example. There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas.”

At the macro level, combining tracking data with contemporary methods of astroturfing results in unprecedented potential for effective propaganda. While on the micro level, the ability to look back at everything someone has ever done on the internet results in a similar potential for blackmail and coercion. These fears, at one point shrugged off as paranoia, were concretely legitimated by the May 2013 intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden.

In the middle of January 2013, I pushed myself to learn as much as I could about maintaining my privacy online. How secure could I be? How hard is it? How far could I go? I purchased a laptop in cash from Craigslist. I corresponded with the seller using only an anonymous Tormail account. I wiped the computer’s drive, installed a Ubuntu partition, only accessed the internet behind Tor, and never logged into any identifying services. I established various pgp keys, all with different passphrases at least 24 characters long. I double encrypted an offline bitcoin wallet, and purchased bitcoins anonymously using a cash transfer via Bitinstant.

I now had an anonymous computer, with anonymous communication capabilities, and anonymous money. What next? The whole exercise was an attempt to conceal my physical identity and leave as small a digital trace behind as possible, but with these new tools at my disposal, I soon realized I could fabricate a new identity. And not just a digital pseudonym; I could use my anonymous currency to purchase counterfeit physical identity documents for a new person, someone I would create.

I took pictures of myself, my girlfriend, and my roommates, and then used Adobe Photoshop to composite our different features together to create a portrait of someone who does not physically exist. I generated a random name based on the top 50 most common first names and surnames in the United States. I then used this portrait and name for various identity documents: drivers license, student ID, tribal membership. I acquired a counterfeit automotive insurance card, counterfeit boating license, and counterfeit proof of residence in the form of a cable bill.

At the end of it all, I was left with a small pile of documents I could use to reasonably convince someone this new person was real. I had the physical proof of a person with an entirely digital genesis.

I decided he should probably have a digital footprint as well, so I set up an associated Tor hidden service. I also set-up a proxy server, which I invite you to use. When you browse the internet using the server your IP address will be concealed, and will instead appear to be that of the proxy server. Every website you visit will add to the tracking data for that IP address. As more people use the service his digital profile will slowly grow, and advertisers will start serving ads specific to that data, data representing this phantom.

I also set up a Twitter account for him. On the project website there is a text input connected to a form that is pre-authenticated to his account. This allows for a bit of reverse astroturfing (many become one, as opposed to one masquerading as many). Please feel free to send a few tweets.

When I was living in Los Angeles a couple years ago I found a patch at an Army surplus store. It was a Naval Intelligence patch with the image of an eagle wearing headphones on it. Above the eagle read “In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor.” While working on this project I rediscovered that patch in a box of my old things. I hung it above my workstation. A reminder to tread lightly as I write the story of Aaron Brown.
Installation of Linux on ASUS Chromebook
Random mouse movements used to provide entropy for second level encryption of Sandisk 64GB USB drive (used as bitcoin wallet), using 256-bit key, 128-bit block, 14 round (AES-256) encryption with RIPEMD-160 hash algorithm
Sticky note
Hunter, Ned, Connor, Aaron, Curtis


Silhouettes began as an experiment in reduction. I was looking to capture emptiness; to photograph nothing. However, it was important to work within the confines of the program of the camera. I didn’t want to cheat the apparatus, and end up with something not quite photography. I wanted to meet “straight photography” on its own terms, which got me thinking about the function of a photograph.

Photography has long served as a medium for documentation. From its genesis to today, it has been used to a breadth of ends as a creator of records. One particularly interesting case is crime scene photography. Forensic photographers are given the responsibility to photograph a scene after an event has taken place, with the hope that their documentation will help shed light on the past. In a sense, they attempt to create a document of something that isn’t there. I followed that train of thought in Silhouettes. I began photographing as if I was arriving “after the fact.” I approached scenes with a curious eye, hoping my scrutiny would lead to discovery.

Shortly after adopting this way of working, I came across an article by Ana Longoni titled, “Photographs and Silhouettes: Visual Politics in the Human Rights Movement of Argentina.” In the article, Longoni focused on the “aesthetic implications of the visual strategies [in the] protests and remembrances of those who disappeared under the Argentinian dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s”. Photographs became a big part of the protests and remembrances, as documents of existence. During the Argentinean dictatorship of 1976-83, 500 concentration camps were established, where approximately 30,000 people disappeared. Small posters were made with images of the disappeared. These images were worn on bodies or held up on signs as Argentineans protested around the Plaza de Mayo (a hub of political life in Argentina). “These images of the disappeared reaffirmed the existence of a biography that predated these subjects’ kidnapping, an existence that was categorically negated by the regime”. The photographs declared that this was, this took place: this person existed. “The photographic apparatus contains this temporal ambiguity of what still is and what no longer is”. I find that opportunity for temporal ambiguity, and specificity, interesting.

Using the psychology of the crime scene photograph as the primary model, Silhouettes explores the function of the photograph as document, and its implications of biography.

A black photograph was included in the exhibition, as part of a sound installation. Attached to the top of the frame were two binaural microphones that were plugged in to a recorder hidden behind the frame. Plugged into the recorder was a pair of headphones, hung on a nail below the frame. The viewer was invited to put the headphones on while looking at the photograph. What the viewer heard through the headphones was realtime 3D audio of the noise of the room, amplified to a level above normal hearing. One could hear every footstep, shuffle, and conversation. Behind the glass, the black image became a mirror. The viewer saw themselves and everything taking place around them. The amplified audio and alluring reflection created a heightened sense of awareness, that simultaneously connected and disconnected the viewer from the space of the gallery. They became hyper aware of the space they were in, but also felt a sense of its otherness, as their experience of it was mediated through the photograph and the headphones.

Home Defense (Proposal - Title in Progress)

My proposal for a project is to document the process necessary to legally purchase a handgun, for home defense, in three different countries.

Gun violence is obviously a very hot issue, and opinions on how to fix the perceived rise in gun violence span a wide spectrum, from no guns ever, to no child left behind without a gun. While reflecting on this I realized I don't even really know what the process is to acquire a gun.

After a bit of research, I came upon the fact that Mexico only has one legal gun store in the entire country. The store is in Mexico City, and it is run by the military. Applicants must pass a variety of tests, both physical and mental, and if approved are allowed to purchase one gun of .38 caliber or less, and one box of ammunition. The firearm's designated purpose is for home defense.

Mexico is a country that is no stranger to gun violence, largely thanks to the high rate of firearm importation from the United States, so it was odd to learn there was only one legal place to buy a gun in the entire country. Surely this must put some of dent in the argument of those who would institute rigorous gun regulation in the United States? Of course it is nowhere near that simple.

My plan is to legally acquire a gun in New York City, for home defense, and document the entire process. I then want to collaborate with someone from Mexico City and Toronto, and document the entire process as they attempt, and hopefully succeed, to buy handguns for home defense.

In the end I will pair these documents with relevant data from each city (gun deaths, average income, average education, illegal gun statistics, etc.) to create artworks. My goal is to create a body of work that reflects how complicated the issue of gun violence is, while reframing the context in which it is considered.

My plan for the exhibition of the work would be to hold three simultaneous exhibitions, one in each city, New York, Mexico City, and Toronto. Each exhibition would show the same documents, statistics, and physical works, with the exception of each respective handgun. Each exhibition would have the handgun acquired in that city on display. A polarizing totem looming in the gallery and anchoring the work; the product of all the labor on display.

In the event that a collector wishes to purchase the work, she or he would have to follow the regulations set forth in each respective city to acquire a second hand firearm.


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