For a year, Andrew Tider and I operated as (unofficial) NSA subcontractors, affixing tape recorders under tables in cafes, bars and restaurants in hopes of finding and thwarting terror plots. I wouldn’t normally introduce a project with a television news piece, but this does a pretty amazing job of wrapping up the story.
We presented ourselves as a project “brought to you by The NSA.” We subtly modified their logo by adorning the eagle with headphones and adding the Latin phrase for “We are always listening.”
If this type of surveillance bothered anyone, they could click the “Angry?” link. This took them to an ACLU page where they could send an email to their government representatives urging them to end the type of data collection the Patriot Act allowed.
To launch We Are Always Listening, our agents sent a package to a Wired Magazine journalist containing a single piece of paper printed with “We’re listening as you read this,” and our web address. The package also contained one of the recorders and a flash drive with video of a recorder being affixed to a restaurant table.
We conducted all media interviews (like this one with CBC Radio) in character, as agents of a 3rd party contractor for the NSA, one operating on a freelance, pro-bono, and unsolicited basis.
Given the NSA had spied on Germany’s Chancellor and made inroads into private German companies, Berlin seemed like a natural first target as we expanded internationally. This garnered headlines in Germany’s biggest newspapers, bringing the NSA’s international actions into the public consciousness.
After a phone conversation with former NSA Senior Executive (turned whistleblower) Thomas Drake, we ended the project by “whistle blowing” on WAAL, calling the project out as supporting an “off the leash” surveillance organization.
Appearing after the “whiste blowing,” this Hyperallergic article was the first time we broke character and revealed ourselves.
OTHER SELECTED PRESS
“New York Today: What’s That You Say?“ – New York Times
“Mimic the NSA with cassette recorders” – Spiegel (Germany)
“‘We Are Always Listening’ Project Skewers NSA Spying And Will Make You Paranoid About Having A Conversation In Public” – International Business Times