Sputnik: Surveillance for Amusement

At the Chaos Communication Congress, a small group of hackers who love a strange computer langauge known as Dylan convinced several thousand people to voluntarily place themselves under surveillance with wearable radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs). They presented their project, called Sputnik, at the conference yesterday. The Sputnik crew placed RFID readers throughout the conference space, and anyone wearing the Sputnick RFID tags (on sale at the front desk for 10 Euros) would be tracked throughout the conference. Participants could register their RFID tag ID number online, and associate it with their name or other personal information. One of the project designers told a packed audience, "Anyone can click on your ID number via a web interface, and find out which lectures you have attended."

The RFID tags contain a transmitter, battery, and what appear to be two processors as well as two crystals (schematics will be posted on the Sputnik website soon). Best of all, the Sputnik crew set up a 3D visualization of the entire conference center, with avatars representing each person with an RFID tag. Using a large touchscreen (pictured at left), users could "look around" the 3D space, select avatars, and find out who they were and where they'd been. Essentially, the Sputnik visualization turned the entire conference into a virtual world containing real world data. As one person using the the display commented, "This is awesome!" Unfortunately, so many people hit the Sputnik website that the display was down for most of the day. But it appears to be back up today and there are more people than ever zooming around with the Sputnik RFID tags clipped to their jackets.

By the end of the conference, the Sputnik crew will know a great deal about what the typical person has done at CCC. They will also have sparked several debates about whether surveillance is ever a good thing -- even if it's done for amusement. --Annalee Newitz