Enemy of the State

Posted by Anna Weinberg and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Hasan Elahi isn't a terrorist‚ and he can prove it.

Since the winter of 2002, Hasan Elahi has documented every urinal he's used. He's photographed every plate of noodles he's eaten. His every movement, in fact, has been tracked through a GPS device in his cell phone and posted online. This is not blog-fuelled solipsism, nor a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His careful documentation of the mundane details of his life is all part of an ongoing art project called "Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project," which Elahi developed when he discovered that after 9/11 the FBI had taken a keen interest in his life.A professor of art at Rutgers University and a working artist, 35-year-old Elahi frequently travels abroad for shows and lectures. But in 2002, after arriving in Detroit from Europe, he handed over his American passport and the man behind the counter "literally froze." Elahi was led to a detention room and questioned by the FBI about his whereabouts on Sept. 11. Apparently, the owners of a storage unit that Elahi rented had called the police to report that an Arab man had been hoarding explosives and had fled on Sept. 12. "Interestingly," says Elahi, "I am not Arab, nor had these people ever seen the inside of the storage unit."
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Elahi was led to a detention room and questioned by the FBI about his whereabouts on Sept. 11.
A Palm PDA proved to be his salvation. Using the calendar, Elahi was able to retrace every move he'd made on the days leading up to, and following, 9/11. But for the next six months, he was frequently called back to the FBI's offices, where he was questioned in Arabic (a language that Elahi, born in Bangladesh and raised in New York, does not speak). He finally passed a three-hour-long lie-detector test and was sent on his way. Fearing a midnight abduction to Guantanamo, he asked for a letter from the FBI clearing him of suspicion. He was told instead to report to an agent the next time he traveled. "Thus the birth of Tracking Transience," he says, "with the first call to [the agent] reporting my whereabouts."The site is now an interconnected series of databases. If you want to verify, for example, that Elahi really did fly from Tokyo to Newark on a certain date, you can look at images of the Tokyo airport on his website-including the urinal he used-and then cross-check his posted bank records for that day, verify the flight details, and look at a catalogue of images of his airplane meals. Elahi's work both aids and undermines the kind of investigations conducted by intelligence agencies. By making all information about his movements available to anyone, he says he's "borrowing a very simple economic principle and flooding a market to a point where the currency has no remaining value." Despite the annoyances of constant documentation, Elahi finds the project reassuring. "I certainly feel safer having my life completely open," he says."If I do disappear, numerous people from all over the world will notice that I'm missing. I look at it as the best security that money can buy."LEARN MORE trackingtransience.net