Aerial assault on Facebook and Google as part of Dublin ‘Hack the City’ attempt (video)

21 Jun 2012

The AR.Drone hones in on part of the O'Connell Monument erected in memory of the Irish political leader Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847) on Dublin City's O'Connell Street

Facebook and Google’s respective European headquarters in Dublin have came under an unusual form of intrusion as part of Dublin’s Science Gallery’s ‘Hack the City’ expo, whereby helicopter drones equipped with cameras honed in on their offices but were met with a frosty reception.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously quipped back in 2010 that privacy was no longer the social norm, referring to the online sharing of information. Well, what would Zuckerberg have made of a particular exhibit at Science Gallery in Dublin in which a video montage featured the European headquarters of both Facebook and Google coming under the radar of robotic helicopters (aka, drones) with video cameras? The occupants of both buildings were less than impressed, shall we say …

Hack the City itself is a new three-month show opening at Science Gallery tomorrow to apply the hacker mindset to the city of Dublin and let people dabble with using open data to playfully rethink how the city operates, ie, its transport systems and architectural visages.

This morning I got a preview of the hacklabs and events. One that particularly stood out was Loitering Theatre, which used special Wi-Fi helicopters (AR.Drones) created by French company Parrot to snoop in on buildings such as Mountjoy Jail, the locked-up and abandoned Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, which was used to store ammunition and arms back in the day, and, interestingly, the European headquarters of Google and Facebook in Dublin City.

The robotic drones themselves can fly up to 50 metres high and possess high-definition cameras that can capture footage. You control the special helicopters via either an iPhone or an iPad.

When filmmaker and digital rights expert Caroline Campbell and visual artist Nina McGowan decided to take footage of the Google and Facebook offices, the reception they received was pretty frosty, as you can see in part of the following video (check out from 1.29 onwards).

From the video footage in Science Gallery today, as part of the Loitering Theatre exhibit, you can see Googlers pulling down the blinds at their offices on Barrow Street, with employees on the inside taking photos of the flying drone.

Campbell said a security guard at Facebook even threatened to call police, even though the duo were taking a video of the offices from a public street.

She pointed to how Facebook is such a massive digital storehouse of user data and yet, when the tables are turned, it is wary about exposing its own visual identity and protecting its privacy.

Campbell also pointed to the privacy laws that Facebook has imposed on users, so the Loitering Theatre exhibit is insightful in that it opens up questions about the treasure trove of information that social networking sites such as Facebook and search engine giants such as Google have on internet users, imposed by their own laws.

The drones used in the Loitering Theatre exhibit also zoomed in on ghost apartment blocks around the city to give people a different perspective on unused buildings and what lies hidden behind facades. When they were filming the home of Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins, Áras an Uachtaráin, Loitering Theatre also managed to lose one of the drones in the gardens of the residence in Phoenix Park!

Hack the City is running for the next three months as part of European City of Science 2012. Key themes are around empowering people to use and manipulate open data to rethink how cities operate and to reshape systems in our urban infrastructure.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic