"I think you have to make things provocative or even dangerous if you want people to pay attention," says co-creator Kyle McDonald.
Take a look around you. Where are you right now? Coffee shop, library, outdoors in a park, somewhere else? Is there a lamp nearby? Would you be happy knowing that the lamp you're sitting next to is live Tweeting every single thing you say? Say hello to Conversnitch, the lamp that does exactly that, and has been for several months.
Conversnitch is the brainchild of Kyle McDonald and Brian House, academics and media artists. It was created to be scary, to make people think about who might be listening and why; ironic that they came up with the idea just before the Snowden revelations. "You can't make this stuff up anymore," says McDonald.
Conversnitch costs less than $100 to make, takes maybe a couple hours to put together, and runs off the lamp's own power, which effectively means it lasts as long as the lamp does. It's made out of a Raspberry Pi mini computer, a microphone, an LED and a plastic flower pot. It uploads any captured audio via the nearest open Wi-Fi network, and sends it to Amazon's Mechanical Turk. Then the Turk workers upload the audio to Conversnitch's Twitter account. McDonald and House admit there have been some problems on the Turk end, and some Tweets were deleted when they began to suspect the Turk workers were falsifying quotes. Otherwise Conversnitch has worked exactly as intended.
The pair hope Conversnitch will get people thinking about their privacy, and the possibility that they could be recorded at any time, in any place. "What does it mean to deploy one of these in a library, a public square, someone's bedroom?" House asks. "What kind of power relationship does it set up?"