I’ve always wanted to be a spy, but have never got over my inability to keep a secret, my desire for attention and my half-hearted realism. But thanks to Dead Drops, an international community building “an anonymous, offline, peer-to-peer file-sharing network in public space”, I can at least live out my dream of putting on a long overcoat and sunglasses and swapping confidential information with strangers.
In the early days of shadowing, spies needed a way to exchange sensitive material in public without meeting.
a system of “dead drops” was developed. A small hollow behind a loose brick in an alleyway wall or under a flagstone on a path was perfect for stashing documents for contacts to pick up later.
But in 2010, Berlin-based artist Aram Bartholl decided to adapt the idea for public use. His dead drops involve people hiding USB flash drives in cities around the world and embedding them into walls, fences and kerbs. The idea is that you look up their location, access the drive, and do what you see fit with the files – add your own, remove or copy them over.
So why do people feel the need to place random information on a thumb drive, cement it into a wall and publish the location on this website for some stranger to find? After all, if you need to transfer information privately, there are loads of online encryption tools out there. And why would people stick random USB drives into their expensive laptops, given that computer viruses notoriously travel via USB thumb drives?
Around the world, people are filling up USB drives with everything from porn to personal stories, and then hiding them inside walls, steps and phone booths in the hopes that strangers will find them. It’s based on the espionage concept of a dead drop—the idea that any sort of container can be left by Person A and picked up by Person B without them ever having to interact. Except there’s one important difference: In this case, Person A doesn’t know who Person B will be.
Of course, it’s rather harder to do so without being noticed – plugging a laptop into the wall isn’t exactly inconspicuous. And there’s a small but significant risk involved: accessing random USB sticks on your computer isn’t the smartest thing to do if you value the contents of your hard drive. The site’s FAQ warns users: “This is part of the concept and part of the game … Be aware of that! Secure your system! Boot a virtual machine! Or ask your friend to go first ;-).”
When cemented into place, each drive is empty except for a file explaining the group manifestos: “A Dead Drop is a naked piece of passively powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space.” But after a while, anything from photos to videos can be uploaded by anyone – which has led to some problems.