Artist Deng Yufeng bought the personal data of 346,000 Wuhan residents and displayed them at a Wuhan Art Gallery in an attempt to make people realize the extent of data leakage. He text messaged over 300,000 of the people to invite them to the gallery to see their data. The exhibition was reportedly closed after its first two days and Deng is still under investigation.

According to 1shoucang, an art news site (in Chinese), the Hubei youth artist Deng Yufeng put on the exhibition titled “Secrets”, billed as an experimental project, at hall seven of the Wuhan Art Gallery. There was an opening ceremony on April 4 and publicity surrounded the event.

Volunteers at Wuhan art data Deng
Volunteers send text messages to the people whose data has been bought and exhibited, inviting them to come to see their information (Image credit: 1shoucang)

The exhibition was divided into sections including big data, behavior and “data people,” where Deng displayed the personal data bought on the black market. Names, ages, heights, telephone numbers, addresses, email addresses, bank details, salaries, car license plates, online shopping history, hobbies, train ticket purchases, and other data were printed on cards and treated with a solution that made the data invisible in daylight but visible in low light. The data was highly detailed. For online shopping there was a breakdown of what had been bought and when.

There was a performance art element to the show as well. Deng hired 6 volunteers who sent nuisance SMS messages (骚扰短信) to over 300,000 of the Wuhan residents, inviting them to come and see their secrets on display and participate in this social experiment.

Data art Wuhan Deng Yufeng text message
Visualization of the SMS invitations sent to those whose data was on display. (Image credit: 1shoucang)

Qdaily reports (in Chinese) that on the morning of April 4th, the day the exhibition opened, only one reply to the messages was received: “I’m ill”.

Dang explained to 1shoucang his understanding of the “gray world” that exists when there are both powerful and weak parts of society:

“The existence of the ‘gray world’ has its roots in the ‘lack of space for refuge in the real world. An era of rapid industrial development will produce many denunciations that cannot be dealt with in time, which accumulate and form a new space in society.  This involves endless desires and the conveying of a morbid state. The ‘black market’ for buying data is one of these ‘gray worlds’. By putting on this exhibition, I’m hoping to see if people can be brought to their senses and the consciousness of rights of every citizen be mobilized.”

Qdaily reports that Wuhan Art Gallery has removed articles about the exhibition from its official WeChat account and has been unable to contact the gallery. An online commentator whose nickname translates as “Privacy Protection Guardian” has said that Deng Yufeng is being investigated by Wuhan police and as yet there has been no outcome.

Deng Yufeng has explored themes of data at previous exhibitions in Beijing and online. In 2016 a Twitter account called “state ID” in Chinese leaked the personal and ID information of Alibaba’s Jack Ma and controversial businessman Guo Wengui, in an attempt to make the poster’s “countrymen think about how worthless their privacy is”.

Privacy concerns are becoming increasingly apparent in China. A recent survey by Tencent Research and CCTV found that almost 80% of Chinese people are concerned about the threat of AI to their privacy. Security company Qihoo 360 recently shut down the online streaming platform connected to its wireless security cameras in public places after pressure from the public.

For more images of the exhibition, visit Zhihu, 1shoucang, and Qdaily.

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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