University of Auckland: Data surveillance: University and Museum tackle facial recognition debate

A collaboration between University of Auckland digital media expert Dr Ethan Plaut, computer scientist Dr Danielle Lottridge, music technologist Dr Fabio Morreale, and the exhibitions and digital experience team at the museum, Eyes on Tāmaki is presented as a giant mobile phone screen.

Visitors can engage with it to find out how their everyday online actions build identities which can then be stored in databases and used by governments and businesses.

As they explore the mobile’s face filter tools, they find out how controversial facial recognition technologies work by amassing personal data.

The experience ends with a question on data privacy and surveillance, which after being answered, allows visitors to see their response against others. A resource page leading to an online survey will be used by the University team to write a research paper on data privacy.

Dr Plaut says that while the installation itself is “playful” it makes a more serious point about the extent to which data collection insidiously permeates our everyday lives.

“Whenever we go online our data is being whisked away and we’re being given these ‘terms of service’ which are framed as some kind of individual choice; but really, we’re not making free and informed choices, and our data is not protected.”

When the team developed the idea, they wanted to look at the flipside of data and encourage visitors to participate in the online survey.

We’re not making free and informed choices, and our data is not protected.
Dr Ethan Plaut
Faculty of Arts
“Data can be wonderful, as you see around the rest of the gallery, but tech companies aren’t upfront with how data are collected, analysed and sold,” says Dr Lottridge. “We’re offered ‘digital wellbeing’ settings and privacy check-ups, but real solutions won’t come from individual choices, they’ll come from tackling surveillance capitalism as a systemic problem.”

Eyes on Tāmaki sits in the same room as Rarau mai / Living City, which tells the story of Auckland’s places and people through data. Living City itself is part of Tāmaki Herenga Waka (‘the gathering place of many waka’), an exhibition of Auckland places and people staged across four galleries, opening to the public this week.

It’s the first time the city of Auckland will have a permanent suite of galleries that explores the past, present and future of the people and cultures that have shaped it.