The Snowden revelations raised a question: how difficult is it to create a database of all people in a nation simply by scraping and puzzling together publicly available online data? Are people doing this already? Could we?
After taking necessary safety precautions, SETUP brought together 35 volunteer data experts, and organized 6 hackathons in which we got to work. The goal: to create a ‘National Birthday Calendar’, an online service that would know so much about everyone that it could make sure no one would ever again get a birthday present they didn’t want. Now all we needed to fund out was everyones name, address, date of birth and at least one interest. How difficult could it be?
We were a little shocked at how far we got: we managed to puzzle together relatively good data on 800.000 Dutch people.
In the proces we had stumbled upon some amazing datasets. The data from defunct social network Hyves. All the profiles from Schoolbank, Wieowie, 50plusser and others were scraped without any resistance. Standardized football membership websites which were easy to copy. All Dutch register accountants had their names and other details online. Even by simply googling we found Excel sheets with vast amount of membership data. The experts on data ethics that we had employed to keep an eye on things were often amazed.
The project formed the starting point for new further explorations. Other artists are given access to the data, and the rise of the project also forms a logical foundation for explorations of reputation systems.
In the media
The project reached numerous media and was presented at TEDx Utrecht (video above) and at the SXSW festival as “DIY NSA, our dubious database of all the Dutch”. This lead to more international attention, mostly in Germany.
Mozilla made the project part of their State of the Web initiative. It was also mentioned on Webwereld, Marketing online, NPO Radio 1, Een Vandaag, Fast Moving Targets, Privacy nieuws, Der Spiegel, SüdDeutsche Zeitung, Zeit, Netzpolitik, Vrij Nederland.
Without SETUP colleagues Ellen Bijsterbosch and Jelle van der Ster this crazy idea would not have become a reality. Thanks to Privacy Company for their support on legal matters and Madison Gurkha for sponsoring a security audit.