Loca is a Locative Art project on mobile phones and grass-roots, pervasive surveillance. Pervasive surveillance has the potential to be both sinister and positive, at the same time. The intent of Loca is to equip people to deal with the ambiguity and to make informed decisions about the networks that they populate. Loca asks how do people respond to being tracked and observed? How ready are people to observe others? Who is the user, and how? Do we get fear of surveillance, disinterest, scopophobia or scopophilia? What happens in-between physical, embodied space and the digital space of abstract data?

Loca is an anticipated accident. The project was inspired by an interest in how surveillance and social control emerge as a residue or unforeseen effect of otherwise virtuous information systems and network technologies. Then it sat in waiting for the accident to happen.

The accident was when the Aware / ContextPhone collaboration started generating surveillance data that was unforeseen by its designers. When users published media to Aware directly from their phone, using software called 'ContextPhone', it automatically annotated this media with contextual information derived from the phones actual surroundings, e.g. time, GSM cell-ID (an approximate geographical Locator), and the bluetooth environment, i.e. a list of the Bluetooth devices around at the time. The premise of Aware and ContextPhone (themselves developed by Loca participants) is that the social context of the media can be used both to situate the media and to help organise it. The Bluetooth information would allow queries like 'show me all the pictures captured when I was in the vicinity of that person', which would be useful in a wide variety of contexts - if, for example, someone wished to gain an overview on an event at which they were present. This contextual information leads to unforeseen consequences, such as the 'accidental' tracking of people present during the media arts festival ISEA2004 in Helsinki. If someone wanted to reproduce what Aware/ContextPhone had been found to do, but for commercial gain or unethical ends, how hard would it be to implement technically and legally?

Loca examines the surveillance potential of different consumer platforms. In San Jose it focused on Bluetooth for a number of reasons: because Bluetooth has been designed in a way that is problematic for privacy management; working with Bluetooth rather than GSM makes possible some independence from the mobile phone companies; and because Bluetooth is the first 'everyday' network technology that enables people to be tracked, and to track each other, within the physical environment. The privacy trade off found in many contemporary forms of surveillance (you need to incrementally give up ever more privacy in order to access new services) is common to all network technologies, but here it is not just data but also bodies in space that are being tracked. (WLAN is similar, but is not always on and is less mobile; GSM tracking remains largely the preserve of the mobile phone companies; RFID (at this time) is still not established in the consumer domain.)

Loca works independently from the mobile phone companies and other service providers so that it is clear to participants that Loca is not swayed by commercial interests in technology and also to show that the project can be done in a low-cost way. Each node is built using readily available, cheap parts, and is encased in concrete in order to be deployed in the urban environment. Loca does not need any special privileges nor to break the law - nothing stops one from Bluetooth scanning; in fact it is part of the protocol, whereas GSM is prohibited. All you need to participate - to watch or be watched - is a Bluetooth device.

An aim for Loca is to make people aware that they have agency, that they can avoid being tracked by turning off their device, or in this case, switching their Bluetooth device to 'invisible'. Loca also sets out to reveal the limit of this agency. With all technologies that are susceptible to pervasive surveillance techniques, the only way to opt-out of the surveillance is to switch off altogether, which is often impractical, and means losing the benefits of that technology. This was not inevitable, and we need to ask why these technologies are not privacy preserving: why, for example, do all network technologies use permanent unique IDs; who made those decisions, on what agenda, who has it benefited? Equally, computers that are invisible are bad for privacy: do you want the things that are tracking you to be hidden? Loca advocates the development of countermeasures and of better privacy management provisions in policies and protocols. An issue with Bluetooth is that Bluetooth scanning is anonymous. Should not the person or device doing the scanning have to provide their identity before they obtain the identity of the devices that they are scanning? Many such measures will involve a cost, so unless an argument is made and demand exists, then it will not happen. Loca highlights the asymmetry involved, the lack of reciprocity between the person scanning and the person scanned, and enables people to experience the unsettling distance between disclosure and connection. immediate

Loca explores peer-to-peer surveillance, and yet, like many such projects, it is peer-to-peer only to a point. Surveillance data is generated independently on each node, but then that data is relayed between the nodes and a server via the GSM network. This does not compromise the principle, however. The surveillance is independent, a server is only used for convenience within this project as it simplifies implementation, and the data could be relayed between nodes in alternative ways, but with less mobility, or higher cost. This would lead to a new set of parameters, alternative questions, and a change in the nature of the project.

Locative Media is principally concerned with the context of location. Projects which can be labelled as 'Locative' use or create technologies that enable users to log and/or publish this contextual media. Users of such systems reveal personal information that is pertinent to the project, but importantly this information can be repurposed by third parties. In failing to address this issue many locative projects leave themselves open to criticism over the potential re-use of such personal information. The critical point is that such projects ask and/or require users to give up this information for a perceived benefit, but do not address the (often unforeseen) consequences of these actions - and the principle unforeseen consequence of Locative Media's demand for logging location and time is that it creates systems susceptible to various forms of surveillance.

Locative Media has yet to fully address its own critical context. Loca seeks to make a contribution to these debates, while at the same time critically assessing its own methodology and the risks of its approach. How can creative work with surveillance technologies add to or distract from traditional campaigning strategies? Does it risk getting the public used to a new control technology prior to its deployment in a coercive way? How may both positive and troubling sides of a new technology be simultaneously explored?

Loca asks: how do people respond to being tracked and observed? How ready are people to observe others? Who is the user, and how? What does it mean to participate in this project? Do we get fear of surveillance, disinterest, scopophobia or scopophilia? What kinds of behaviour is this technique suited to mapping, and what behaviours is it not suited to? What kinds of behaviour can evade this form of surveillance? How does the contextual information we can detect (such as Location, time spent in one place, etc) relate to people's everyday experiences of the environment? What happens in-between physical, embodied space and the digital space of abstract data? What is the relationship between the embodiment of the mobile user and the abstraction of the data we capture?

The Loca group of John Evans, Drew Hemment, Theo Humphries and Mika Raento formed during 2004. The project was initiated during an AHRC Research Fellowship by Drew Hemment and following work by John Evans, Theo Humphries and Mika Raento on the Aware platform. The Loca group developed the project during a series of workshops in Manchester and Helsinki and presented it in Helsinki, London and San Jose.

Credits Loca was realised with the generous support of Arts Council England, British Council, AHRC and University of Salford.

Loca is a group project by John Evans (UK/Finland), Drew Hemment (UK), Theo Humphries (UK), Mike Raento (Finland)

Website and film by Drew Hemment