The Artist Using Museums to Amplify Tor’s Anonymity Network

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FOR THE PAST few years, Trevor Paglen has been at the vanguard of a movement of fine artists who have led gallery-goers to grapple with the realities of online privacy and government spying. Now he’s gone beyond using museums to merely observe and study surveillance—he’s enlisting those same institutions to fight it.

Since 2014, Paglen has exhibited a sculpture he and his collaborator Jacob Appelbaum call the Autonomy Cube, a minimalist 1.25-foot block of almost invisibly translucent, 1.5-inch-thick acrylic that houses a custom-made Wi-Fi router. When any gallery visitor connects to that router, it redirects their data over the encrypted and anonymized Tor network. But it also simultaneously serves as a Tor relay—one of the thousands of volunteer computers that bounce the traffic of Tor users through layers of encrypted proxies to make the software’s anonymizing properties possible.

Over the last year, Paglen’s Autonomy Cubes have been quietly multiplying. He now has four of the devices touring among museums around the world, showing for a few months in each museum before moving to another, from New York to London to Frankfurt. In several of those museums, the cube has been placed alone in an empty white room like some sort of alien artifact, its power and network cables concealed in the white plinth it rests on.

Three new installations of the device will start in May. And Paglen’s hoping to install new Autonomy Cubes permanently in any museum that will pay for their creation. His goal: to turn museums into hosts for the Tor network, using their relatively high-bandwidth Internet connections to strengthen Tor’s online anonymity protections. In the process, he also wants to push museums themselves to consider their own stance toward online privacy and surveillance.

Making Privacy Visible

Paglen says that he’s been surprised to find just how eager museums have been to contribute their bandwidth to the cause of online anonymity, just like the many libraries that have recently begun hosting pieces of the Tor network. “It started off as a one-off, and then after seeing how much interest it was generating in these institutions, I thought ‘this can be real,’” he says. “When you have a handful of these installed they can really contribute substantially to the Tor network.”

Each of the museum installations has been far more powerful than the average Tor relay, Paglen says, allowing many Tor users to direct their traffic over a single router simultaneously. Several of the museums have pushed close to 100 megabits per second, he says, compared with the single digit megabits per second provided by the average volunteer machine on the Tor network. “You’re on industrial-strength Internet connections, not DSL lines in people’s houses,” he says.

Each Autonomy Cube contains at least two of the open-source Novena motherboards created by the hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, each one designed to reboot the other one if it crashes so that the router never goes offline. And they’re designed to be easy to configure, so that museums won’t need to do tech support to maintain them. Paglen says he hopes that simplicity—and perhaps a grant or two to pay for longer-term installations—can help more museums adopt the nodes and grow Tor’s network. “We loan you this nice piece of art,” Paglen says would be the ideal. “All you have to do is plug it in.”

The Autonomy Cube.

In the Edith-Russ-Haus, a public gallery in the center of Oldenburg, Germany, curators late last year went so far as to set up the Autonomy Cube as an “exit node,” the computer that acts as the third and final hop in Tor traffic’s path before it reaches its destination. That meant a high-bandwidth relay on the city’s own network would be connecting anonymous people directly to all manner of websites—including potentially unsavory ones. The museum’s curators were careful to notify the local police, who warned them that Tor’s privacy-protective connections can be used to access child pornography, drug markets and terrorism sites. But the museum decided to host the exit node anyway, even paying for its own dedicated 100 megabit-per-second internet connection. “One of the biggest issues of our time is this combination of surveillance and algorithms,” says the museum’s co-director Marcel Schwierin. “Yet people can’t feel it. It’s completely invisible. There must be a way to make this more visible. That’s what the Autonomy Cube does. You see it and you know that thousands of people are anonymizing their data to defend their privacy.”

For the sake of that political message, Schwierin says, the museum was willing to take on the controversy. “To make this statement of how much society is endangered, you have to take some risks,” he says.

Designing the Cube

For years, Paglen has focused his work on secret government projects, publishing a book of military and intelligence badges for classified operations, and photographing CIA black sites and hidden military and intelligence satellites in the night sky. But after the revelations of Edward Snowden, Paglen became fascinated with Internet surveillance in particular; He’s projected NSA code names onto the side of the British Parliament building in London and scuba dived to photograph the Internet fiber lines tapped by the NSA. “I was trying to understand the systems that the Snowden documents were describing, how the Internet back bone works, cable landing sites, the physical infrastructure of the Internet and the NSA, which are almost indistinguishable from one another,” Paglen says.

Leif Ryge and Trevor Paglen assembling the anonymity cube.

Paglen designed the Autonomy Cube with the help of Jacob Appelbaum, an activist and technologist who works for the non-profit Tor Project, which builds and maintains Tor’s code. The organization, for its part, says it wholly supports Paglen’s push to bring museums into Tor’s network. “It’s one thing to say that you support artistic freedom, but it’s another thing to host the machinery that can make it so. That’s what an Autonomy Cube does,” says Tor Project spokesperson Kate Krauss. “We’d love to see a Tor relay in every museum in the world.”

The creation of the Autonomy Cube, Paglen says, was inspired in part by a 1962 sculpture called the Condensation Cube, created by the artist Hans Haacke, which consisted of a similarly translucent plexiglass cube containing a small amount of water, which would repeatedly evaporate and condense. (“The box has a constantly but slowly changing appearance that never repeats itself,” Haacke wrote in an artist’s statement at the time. “It is changing freely, bound only by statistical limits. I like this freedom.”)

But beyond its physical design, Paglen says the idea of the Autonomy Cube also came out of his impulse to create what he calls “impossible objects,” things that seem to have arrived from another world that contrasts with our own. “What would the infrastructure of the Internet look like if mass surveillance wasn’t its business model?” he asks. “My job as an artist is to learn how to see what the world looks like at this historical moment. But it’s also to try to make things that help us see how the world could be different.”