Kyle McDonald, a Brooklyn-based artist, received a visit from the Secret Service on Thursday after he installed webcam image software on Apple Store computers. The software used the computer’s camera to take a picture every two minutes and then posts those images online for all to see.
McDonald posted the Webcam images to a Tumblr blog he titled “People Staring at Computers.” He claims that he was given permission by Apple security staff to take images in the store, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he had explicit permission to install software to take those pictures and post them online.
People on twitter have questioned McDonald if he got the permission of every person who’s image was taken before posting it on his blog. He claims he didn’t have to because “as i understand, photography in open spaces is legal unless explicitly prohibited.” He followed that up with a tweet that he would remove someone’s image from the blog if they asked him.
This wasn’t necessarily an easy project for McDonald to pull off. The computers in Apple stores are wiped every night which means McDonald would have to go to the store each day and reinstall the software. The project resulted in 1000 photos taken over 3 days at New York Apple stores. He doesn’t clarify how many stores were involved but either way it’s a lot of leg work on his part.
The Secret Service took issue with the project and stopped by McDonald’s residence. His tweet after the SS left indicates they confiscated his personal laptop, “@secretservice just stopped by to investigate … and took my laptop. please assume they’re reading any emails you send me.”
The warrant left with McDonald by the SS cited 18 USC section 1030. The short version is that his actions in some way emcompassed fraud related to computers. The section specifically calls out accessing a computer without authorization as well. McDonald immediately reached out to the Electronic Frontier Foundation for help and indicated that they were encouraging him to stay quiet for the moment. When MyCE.com asked the EFF for comments about McDonald’s case the response was simply, “I’m sorry, but we can’t discuss this at this time.” It looks like everyone is going to keep quiet for now.
The project itself doesn’t seem to be malicious in any way, with McDonald clearly stating all he wanted were photos and that, “keylogging public machines would make me uncomfortable.” The goal was to have people start to view how they interact with computers differently. “I thought maybe we could see ourselves doing this we would think more about our computers and how we’re using them,” McDonald said.
So is this a harmless experiment or criminal activity? It looks like the Secret Service will be pondering that very question as they examine McDonald’s computer and data.