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On Obscurity: An Interview with Paolo Cirio

Daphne Dragona

Featured Image: Obscurity (2016), Paolo Cirio

Obscurity, the latest project of Paolo Cirio, targets american mugshot websites. Mugshots are one of the utmost paradigms of the inexorable logic of today’s online economy and its controversial ethics; they collect and expose photos of people who have been arrested in the U.S., irrespective of the type of offence, and they profit by placing reputation management ads or by charging a removal fee. The owners of these websites are often anonymous or based offshore. As part of his project, Cirio cloned some the most known mugshots, scrambled the data profiles of the listed individuals  and obfuscated their identities. In addition, he programmed the algorithm so that it boosts the ranking of the cloned websites in order to interfere with the activity of the original ones and to therefore sabotage their function. Mugshots can have a decisive role in someone’s life, reinforcing a new form of social stigmatisation defined by search engines results. When visiting the mugshot duplicates, users are invited to decide whether the listed profiles should be kept or removed. Obscurity brings to the foreground critical and complicated issues around today’s privacy and transparency, discussing the current legislative system in the U.S. in comparison to Europe and other parts of the world.

I talked with Paolo Cirio about the challenges and difficulties behind his -once again- daring act and artistic work.

DD: Mugshot websites are based on the exploitation of the anxiety and fear of people who have been arrested in the U.S. It addresses a new form of monetisation that takes reputation management to its extreme. Could you tell us how ‘big’ is the issue of mugshots in the U.S. and what made you develop a project about it?

PC: There are probably over 50 million mugshots on the Internet, and perhaps more, considering that every year in the U.S., city and county jails admit between 11 and 13 million people, an average that has been steadily increasing in the last twenty years. I personally met people that had their mugshots published on those websites and had to pay a removal fee. I would say that this is a very common issue for non-white and low-income Americans, who are the majority, although they’re often neglected by public attention.

I was surprised that this issue was being ignored and not addressed seriously. I couldn’t find any privacy organization in the U.S. focusing on this issue or making a major case for the Right to Be Forgotten in the U.S.

In particular, the several contradictions and complexities of the situation offered me an exciting subject to intervening practically and conceptually. It was the saddest and most delicate material I had ever worked with. However, it was important to address how the flow of information today can impact lives so directly and how art can do something with that. In most of my artworks, I highlight our information society’s legal, economic, and social implications. These fields are all tightly interconnected in this work: the economic value of sensitive information with the personal interest and the legal system with the public democratic interest. I would say that this work is about society as a whole.

DD: At the heart of your project lies an obfuscation algorithm. Obfuscation is a strategy against datafication which has been very much discussed in the last few years. How is it used as part of your project, and why?

PC: The obfuscation of information became quite a sophisticated operation in this work. The huge dataset I assembled with such delicate material could not be wasted or mishandled. That’s why I decided to apply different layers of obfuscation to protect the privacy of the individuals and, at the same time, keep the data accurate.

The algorithm shuffles first and last names and mugshots based on common gender, race, age, and location, making their obfuscated identities similar to the original ones. Meanwhile, for the profile of the person arrested, all the data concerning the arrest is maintained accurately. The individual records provide the social context of the arrest for public scrutiny without exposing the individual. For instance, you can still count how many people of colour have been arrested in a specific county, but it would be hard to identify individuals.

I believe there is a need to learn how to handle sensitive information very carefully, case by case, and to deal with complexity to provide simplicity and not make it more overwhelming. The notion of privacy and transparency can’t be polarized between fears and utopias of big data.

In past years, I’ve been working on several projects concerning the circulation, appropriation and exposure of sensitive information over the Internet. In particular, I made artwork by recontextualizing photos of individuals on Facebook, Twitter, Google Street View, and other online platforms. These provocative works were meant as a warning regarding social media companies’ privacy policies and the danger of losing control over one’s pictures posted online. However, I never let search engines index this personal information or expose their names in all cases.

I believe in a need for an ecology of information. I see information as water; it should be safe, accessible, and clear for everyone’s sake. Any form of pollution could damage an entire ecosystem. Therefore, for me, obfuscating a particular flow of information is more of a technique to clean a toxic spill into a reserve of data that can be essential for a democratic society. Like when it allows public scrutiny over law enforcement agencies. Imagine some operations trying to obfuscate open data or inject fake stories into WikiLeaks. Wouldn’t it be as shameful an act as polluting spring water? In the future, it’ll be even more important to fight to keep the oceans of data clean, safe, and navigable.

This is another reason why obfuscation is something that should be done carefully.

Obscurity cloned mugshote website
Just Mugshots, cloned mugshot website by Paolo Cirio

DD: As part of your artistic practice, you often deploy participatory formats for the audience. Lately, though, you seem to be more and more interested in having the audience take a stance and become more involved in the decision-making or problem-solving process. What made you turn in this direction for this particular project? How does user participation become an indispensable part of the work?

PC: I follow the natural evolution of the Internet. I started research works involving millions of individuals in early 2009 when I noticed how quickly Facebook was becoming popular, thus offering a huge audience for my work, which became the actual material of it. Many apps let us manage our life and everything around it by tapping buttons on screens. At this point, everyone makes decisions on the Internet that affects someone else as they produce changes in concrete reality. The
Internet is the best tool and environment for decision-making and problem-solving today. Therefore, the basic sense of civility we developed in the physical space should be learned in the online environment.

Yet, with the Internet, we are in the Paleolithic Period, almost naked in public, and learning about what we can do with primitive tools while not knowing how to live together peacefully and with respect for one another.

In this project, I examine online judgment. The rating that is taken to its extreme is online shaming. I’m interested in the ethics and aesthetics around it concerning algorithms and individuals who rate and score others.

With the participatory model proposed, everyone can decide to keep or remove an individual criminal record. I like to invent systems of participation, as they can be structured to channel flows of social dynamics for creative forms of society.

It is a preposition, “what if” everyone could judge people online accused of a crime like an open jury and give a verdict on whether they should be forgiven or punished by society. The project also questions the necessary information to make a fair judgment. I’d not be surprised if tribunals were to one day have this type of online public forum.

Obfuscated profile picture at cloned website
Obfuscated profile picture at cloned website

DD: Through your artwork, you are underlining the urge for the ‘Right to Remove.’ How does this differ from what we know in Europe as the ‘Right to be Forgotten?

PC: The Right to Be Forgotten has been largely contested in both the U.S. and the E.U. for its potential to censure, for its lack of transparency on the decision process, and because it makes search engines the only jury on what the public can find online. Yet, in the E.U., although not perfect, the law offers all European citizens some rights since a few years ago.

In the U.S., it’s more complicated, mainly because the First Amendment protecting the Freedom of Expression is supposed to win over any attempt to curb the publishing of public information and opinions. This is the case made to oppose the Right to Be Forgotten in the U.S., and the one pushed forward by many organizations, like those dedicated to lobbying for freedom of the press or governmental transparency laws, that still defend the publishing of mugshots.

The federal system in the U.S. further complicates this situation. Every state in the U.S. has been approaching issues concerning the online publication of mugshots, revenge porn, and even information on minors differently. In many states, these are still totally unregulated. Talking about the legal and justice system in the U.S. is very hopeless when considering that Google is the company that has spent the most money ever in lobbying the U.S. Congress. Google has always been strongly opposed to the Right to Be Forgotten in both the E.U. and the U.S. They always mention censorship, technical impracticality, and not being accountable for their search results.

However, with copyright and trademark claims, search engine companies can manage huge quantities of takedown requests. Why would they not be able to offer the same for personal information complaints? Ownership rights should not be more important than human rights.

With this project, I made a proposal for a basic list of very specific categories of personal information that ordinary people in the U.S. should be able to remove from search results. With the Right to Remove, I wanted to create a straightforward campaign to inspire a workable form of this right for the U.S. To do so, I researched this legal subject on the campaign’s website. I launched a petition that I plan to have signed by a few key privacy lawyers, academics, and organizations in the U.S. in the coming months, to be finally presented as an open letter to search engine companies and the FTC. However, for me, this proposal is part of the conceptual artwork. I don’t have hopes of being able to effect change as that would require a huge press effort, and so far, I haven’t received any funding or institutional support for this project.

DD: Are you also interested in the aesthetic qualities of obfuscation? Are you planning a physical installation of the artwork?

For me, the aesthetic qualities are mainly conceptual and strategic.

In most of my work, there is also a documentative function, in this case, it’s about bringing attention to mass incarceration and the lack of a privacy policy in the U.S. Because of the research presenting facts with videos, texts, data, and images, the audience can enjoy the artwork as an interactive documentary. I don’t find data visualization an interesting mode of presentation. Still, I did use the database to find gross human rights violations like the mugshots of ten-year-old kids or seniors over ninety-five.

I later realised that the algorithm that manipulates the mugshots created very interesting visual effects. It seems worth it to make prints of them for the installation. The darkness and the blueness recall the obfuscation of data in a visual form. They look scarier or more inoffensive when the colours hide their appearance. This reminds the audience of how difficult it can be to judge someone without having clear and complete information about the individual. In the installation, I would have a paper shredder that destroys mugshots as they are printed based on the audience’s browsing and interactions on the mugshot websites.

With this project, I also suggest a form of Internet social art practice. It’s inspired by many artists I admire that have been doing social practice work in the U.S. In this case, I’m suggesting that artists can make Internet artworks that have a social function for a problematic group of people, communities and the environment.

For instance, with this project, I started to receive an increasing number of emails from people asking me to remove their records because they thought I was behind the real mugshot websites. They are automatically redirected to sign the petition.

What makes an aesthetic difference for me is when artworks live outside the art world and artistic modes of representation. My audience is not really the minority attending the spectacle of art. Instead, it’s real people with real lives and concerns. Even when the artwork is not exhibited, reviewed, or sold, it’s still online, informing, producing reactions, and possibly changing.

Selected picture from the Installation of Obscurity
Selected framed picture from the first installation of ‘Obscurity’

project website:

cloned websites: