Digital Dead Drops: Public P2P File-Sharing

Public, offline, anonymous file-sharing, now available in crevices near you:

Berlin-based media artist Aram Bartholl started the Dead Drops project while working as an artist-in-residence in NYC in 2010.  Dead Drops functions as a P2P file-sharing network in public spaces, such as this one, where anonymous users can plug their laptops in and out of USB sticks secured in walls, holes, and other nooks and crannies with cement.  The database lists locations of and directions to USB drops worldwide, installed and maintained by anyone who wants to become involved.  The idea comes from traditional “dead drops,” points where information is exchanged between two intelligence agents without them ever meeting face-to-face.  This becomes more unwieldy on public city streets, where information could potentially be shared between thousands of people, making private drops difficult if not impossible (more thoughts on this below).

While security seems like it would be an issue, I’m not sure public USBs carry any more risks than regular Internet usage, and any potential problems could be easily avoided with a USB Security Scanner and/or adware and malware software that checks the drive on insertion.  You could also try booting your system using Linux.  Other potential risks of using Dead Drops could include random deletion of files, modification of non-protected/non-encrypted files, theft of files, information, or the USB stick itself if poorly mounted, and vandalism.  I mean, look at the logistics of this:

I like the look of it, personally—modern and mostly unobtrusive—but unfortunately a pissed-off kid could smash it pretty easily with a well-placed kick.  The biggest issues with Dead Drops, however, revolve around privacy: unlike cloud-based file-sharing (well, ideally speaking), Dead Drops are publicly accessible to everyone by virtue of its purpose.  Outside of the cloud, your data is also not subject to corporate copyright, changing ToS agreements, privacy policies, and so on.

Many of the USB Drops appear to use FAT formatting, so NTFS read-only wouldn’t work.  That said, the issue could be mitigated by using on-the-fly file encryption software such as TrueCrypt to place a hidden file container on the USB stick.  I keep meaning to test this, being relatively new to TrueCrypt myself, but in theory another user with knowledge of the TrueCrypt file location and password could download and open the file on his/her laptop, thereby allowing you to limit the number of recipients of your files at that dead drop.

For no real reason apart from recreational paranoia, I am always wondering about how I would transmit information to another person without being seen doing so and without that information falling into the wrong hands.  I like Dead Drops as a possible response to my anxiety, and I do think there are kinks to be worked out, but I’m pretty excited by the project and how much it has caught on globally in just one year.  Furthermore, it seems like an excellent offline-based file-sharing system for large-scale leaks like WikiLeaks, LulzSec’s doxing, and Anonymous’s projects.

Regardless of my misgivings, I have every intention of installing some myself and making use of the ones already out there.  All of the below instructions are available on the Dead Drops website, but I’m including how-to instructions for those who, like me, are too lazy to take notes from the video or scour the forums for tips.  I’m also including New York locations because, well, I live here.  So lucky you if you live here too.

1.  The Dead Drops Manifesto, written by Aram Bartholl, original post here.

Dead Drops is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space.  Anyone can access a Dead Drop and everyone may install a Dead Drop in their neighborhood/city.  A Dead Drop must be public accessible.  A Dead Drop inside closed buildings or private places with limited or temporary access is not a Dead Drop.  A real Dead Drop mounts as  read and writeable mass storage drive without any custom software.  Dead Drops don’t need to be synced or connected to each other.  Each Dead Drop is singular in its existence.  A very beautiful Dead Drop shows only the metal sheath enclosed type-A USB plug and is cemented into walls.  You would hardly notice it.  Dead Drops don’t need any cables or wireless technology.  Your knees on the ground or a dirty jacket on the wall is what it takes to share files offline.  A Dead Drop is a naked piece of passively powered Universal Serial Bus technology embedded into the city, the only true public space.  In an era of growing clouds and fancy new devices without access to local files we need to rethink the freedom and distribution of data.  The Dead Drops movement is on its way for change!

Free your data to the public domain in cement!  Make your own Dead Drop now!  Un-cloud your files today!!!

2.  How to Install a Dead Drop, also posted here.

  • Get a USB drive of any size.
  • To fit the stick into a small crevice, you can dismantle the plastic case and wrap the stick in Teflon tape to seal it, or leave the case on as this makes the stick more stable.
  • Download the ReadMe & Manifesto file and load it onto the drive.
  • To set the USB drive in the spot you’ve chosen, use fast-setting cement or Epoxy Putty, which seems to be strongly recommended by users.  Make sure the drive can be accessed by anyone with a laptop; don’t count on users to have an extension cord.
  • Prettify the wall—paint it to its original color, chip away excess putty or cement.
  • Once you’ve installed it, take 3 good pictures and submit them to Dead Drops’s database.  Include: a) overview of the place; b) approximate location; c) close-up.
3.  Locations in New York, full database here.

Manhattan

  • Eyebeam Drop:  540 W. 21st St.
  • Dumbo Drop:  Empire Fulton Ferry Park
  • Union Drop:  Union Square E
  • NewDrop:  235 Bowery St.
  • MoMA Drop:  11 W. 53rd St.
Brooklyn
  • Makerbot Drop:  87 3rd Ave.
  • 319 Drop:  319 Scholes St.
And for no reason at all except that I am only just now catching up on the news, UK law enforcement has arrested Topiary, idiots are calling domestic terrorist organization on LulzSec, and cybersecurity corporation ManTech, to whom the FBI outsources cybersecurity for roughly $100M, has been hacked by Anonymous in the name of AntiSec and FuckFBIFriday.  Torrent available here.  FBI: 0; AntiSec: winning.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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