Originally written by Alex Hern:
I’ve always wanted to be a spy, but have never got over my inability to keep a secret, my wanton desire for attention and my half-hearted pacifism. 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 trenchcoat and sunglasses and swapping confidential information with strangers.
In the early days of espionage, spies needed a way to exchange sensitive material in public without meeting: a system of “dead drops” was developed (distinct from a “live drop”, when spies met). A small hollow behind a loose brick in an alleyway wall or under a flagstone on a towpath were 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.
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’s manifesto: “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.
In February, a German journalist discovered plans for a bomb uploaded to one dead drop in Cologne, along with guides to producing crystal meth, and recipes for various deadly poisons. It’s like a modern version of the Anarchist Cookbook, a collection of forbidden knowledge passed around through underground networks for the better part of 50 years, and while the dead-drop upload seems to have been as much a political act as an attempt to share bomb-creation tips, it was enough to get the police involved.
That hasn’t stopped the community expanding, though, to almost 1,500 dead drops around the world, with nearly 10 terabytes of combined storage. There are dead drops on every continent in the world except Antarctica, as far north as eastern Iceland and as far south as Wellington, New Zealand. The most recent were added in Hong Kong, Baden Württemberg in Germany and Xining, a city in western China, a long way from the first set of five hidden around New York City.
Even if you haven’t harboured childhood dreams of being a spy, there’s something appealing about the network. It takes the isolated world of the web and injects a dose of reality, encouraging us to get out of our homes and offices and explore the real world for a bit.