Manu Luksch shares insights on data privacy, surveillance

Nov. 17, 2021, 12:08 a.m.

During her final public lecture on Thursday, Oct. 28 at Oshman Hall, 2021 Denning Visiting Artist Manu Luksch captivated audience members with her snarky and foreboding body of work concerning data privacy and surveillance in the UK and UAE.

Vienna-born and London-based artist Luksch is a data privacy and human rights activist who voices her concerns about the Anthropocene and surveillance through film and interactive media. Luksch explores the technology and legal structures that claim to protect individuals in an age of increasing surveillance. 

Luksch screens what she refers to as “legal readymades” — raw footage or documents she obtains by submitting legal requests per the Freedom of Information Act — and invites audiences to engage with the systems behind them. Luksch essentially uses these “legal readymades” to illustrate the dysfunctional relationships between tech law and humanity that make us vulnerable to exploitation and invasion. 

Luksch has always been at the forefront of data privacy advocacy. In London, she expressed her concern through a short film about public surveillance systems and closed-circuit television cameras (CCTVs). She was stopped by police in the name of the Prevention of Terrorism Act while collecting information about these public surveillance systems.

Almost two decades later, Luksch revisited urban surveillance in her ongoing project “Algorithmic City Walk” with Mukul Patel, a mathematician, composer and long-time collaborator on the art collective “AmbientTV” (1997-2017). The project is a 30-minute audio-AR guided tour across Westminster, England in which audiences hear teenagers chatting; the video tour ultimately exposes the invasive surveillance practices of the British government in the area.

Luksch also directed and starred in the sci-fi fairytale “FACELESS” (2001-2007), set in a futuristic London run by “RealTime”, a Big Brother-like body. The film uses stills and footage from private CCTV systems Luksch collected through the UK’s Data Protection Act for over four years. The footage became a legal readymade that contained Luksch herself and headless, anonymised others — obscured to protect their privacy and often cut out by hand by the provider. The project culminated in a haunting narrative of flickering motions, interrogating the regulation and safety of data privacy and leaving us to wonder: “who watches the watchers?”

A close up photo of a piece of blue and grey art.
In an eerily familiar city, a calendar reform has dispensed with the past and the future, leaving citizens faceless, without memory or anticipation. Unimaginable happiness abounds – until a woman recovers her face…” –Luksch, Manu (2007) (Photo courtesy of Manu Luksch)

In 2017, Luksch learned about the Denmark-UAE government-to-government spyware trade through investigative journalist friend Lasse Skou Andersen. This inspired Luksch to create a documentary, “The Billion $ Dissident,” about the United Arab Emirates’s efforts to develop smart cities and the darker side of invasive surveillance that may come with them. Luksch was able to develop the project significantly via an interview with Ahmed Mansoor Al Shehhi, “the last Emirati Human Rights Activist,” about his thoughts, hopes and concerns for the country. 

A room with people in an official setting.
“Mansoor received the 2015 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for his committed support of the many ‘disappeared’ dissidents in the UAE. He has been dubbed ‘The Last Emirati Human Rights Activist’ and ‘The Million Dollar Dissident’ (after what it cost the UAE to crack Mansoor’s iPhone).” — Luksch, Manu (2016) (Photo courtesy of Manu Luksch)

Footage of the interview was not published until Mansoor’s arrest in 2017, when it became a piece of evidence in a UK-UAE trade deal negotiation because it evinced digital human rights violations through surveillance in the UAE. Luksch said that the story of UAE’s surveillance reveals “our relationship to human rights and authoritarian regimes and technology, [but also shows] the areas where we need to improve through law.” As technology evolves, so do we as consumers and policymakers as regulators. As Luksch explained, “the law is a living organism just as much as we are.”

This quarter, Luksch is teaching ARTSTUDI 180/280: “Media Art in the Age of Surveillance.” In the class, Luksch requires her students to obtain their personal information files from the FBI and fly drones to create photogrammetry of the campus. Luksch found her time at Stanford to be immensely valuable due to her “uniquely stimulating” conversations with researchers and students. 

“I can’t tell you how many hours Manu put into trying to make this happen,” said Camille Utterback, Associate Professor of Art & Art History and Associate Professor (by courtesy) of Computer Science. Utterback elucidated the process of arranging the drones. “There’s a lot of rules about flying drones on campus — you can’t, basically.” However, with the help of the Stanford Maps and Records team, Luksch successfully arranged to use the drones in the class.

Sejoon Chang ’25 spoke enthusiastically about the class: “Here, we use props and objects that we normally wouldn’t even touch in other art courses; I’d never thought of using drones or other pieces of advanced technology to create art.” Chang added that “the class’s overarching theme of surveillance also makes you really think about how interconnected our world is with media and technology, and how much of our lives are exposed to other parties.”

Beyond her desire to teach, what attracted Luksch to Stanford was its deep connection with Silicon Valley. Stanford is a feeder pipeline to big tech firms, educating the next generation of leaders in technology who will inherit many of the large tech companies that control and commercialize personal data. 

Treading the line between art and investigative journalism, Luksch rejects the notion of labels, only confining her work to them when seeking funding. “If I feel this will be of interest to people who are interested in art, then [I] maybe approach those. If I feel there are funds for the documentary film, then [I] approach them instead.” To Luksch, what matters is sharing the stories and continuing to push herself as an artist.

When asked about what she viewed as the biggest threat to society in the future, Luksch spoke about the rise of polarization in social media. “I never thought that I would see a collapse of public debate into a black and white position as we are experiencing right now because we just haven’t really built the right platforms,” Luksch said. She hopes to soon see society “maximize public debate and create a culture around [discussion].” 

Finally, Luksch emphasized the urgency of creating ways to use social media that track our information sustainably, leading the discussion of digital privacy away from implicating users themselves. “Not everyone has the choice to be, or not be, on the internet or on a social media platform,” she said. As modern technology rapidly expands and substitutes for in-person workplaces on a global scale, we have to learn to approach tech law differently. 

To learn more about Luksch, visit her site or watch her documentary and the story behind FACELESS for free through Stanford Library and read Lawrence Lessig’s “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.”

Bhumikorn Kongtaveelert '25 is the news desk editor for Science & Technology. He is majoring in Computer Science and Art Practice with interest in remote sensing and the environment.

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