It’s one of those cyberpunk ideas that sounds almost impossible to implement on any global capacity, but Dead Drops are very real — and over 800 of them exist around the world with more being added every day.
USB Dead Drops are a modern take on an old spy practice of dropping a message in an inconspicuous location known only to the two agents involved in the information exchange. With this project, started by Aram Bartholl in 2010, the information is being exchanged electronically by way of a hidden USB flash drive located in a public place. Because USB flash drives are fairly small, these can be difficult to find if you’re not looking for them. Because only 885 (at the time of this writing) drops are registered on the official project site, the chance of you finding one without knowing exactly where it’s hidden is pretty slim.
The Dead Drops project was started by Aram Bartholl, a Berlin-based media artist who had no idea that the project would catch on when he set up his first five Dead Drops in New York City during his stay back in 2010. Since then, he and many supporters have placed more drops around the globe. In my home city of Austin, TX, you can find four of them scattered around. Each of these drops holds anywhere from 2-8 GB and has no physical connection to the Web. In order to access the files found on these drives, you have to physically make your way out to them and access the files yourself.
Dead Drops are simply USB flash drives that are either cemented into a wall or otherwise fastened to a publicly accessible surface. The idea is to create a storage space that allows people to share their own electronic media with others without having any connection to the Web, whatsoever. You simply plug your computer into the flash drive and it’ll mount itself as an external storage device. There are some downsides to be aware of before trusting your computer or data to these devices.
- It isn’t difficult for someone to install malicious software on the drive.
- The drive can be easily destroyed by physical action by random people passing by.
- Information stored on these drives can be accessed and deleted by anyone.
- Installing a Dead Drop without permission could lead to legal repercussions.
- You have to physically access the specific drive to receive data.
Dead Drops are an ingenious idea, and if we really could face a situation where our access to information becomes restricted by governmental action or terrorism, having some form of offline information sharing network could be quite useful, especially if that network isn’t centrally controlled or remotely accessible. Information stored on these drives is accessed, uploaded, and downloaded anonymously.
If you think about it, this is the kind of thing that would be very useful in areas where information is being repressed and accessing this data could lead to a risk of health and well-being. Just as the spies used similar drops during the Cold War, these very same tactics could be used to help regular people keep information going in the face of unforeseen circumstances.
Dead Drops can also be an asset to a brick-and-mortar business wishing to bring some new folks to its front door. Just as a well-placed geocache brings customers in to the frozen custard stand down the street from my apartment, a Dead Drop could potentially do the same.
No one person controls these drops. Beyond hosting a site that explains their purpose and where you can find some in your area, Aram Bartholl considers every Dead Drop (even the ones he placed) to be public domain and freely accessible to everyone and anyone.
More Information / Alternative Uses
You probably have a few questions regarding this project. Many of them can be answered by visiting the official project site, including where some may already exist in your area.
Just because this particular project is intended for public use doesn’t mean you can’t set up your own private offline data sharing network (legal files of course) for use within your own community. For example, imagine a scavenger hunt where each drive contains a text file giving clues to where you might find the next drive. This could be a lot of fun, if implemented properly.
These little USB flash drives could be hidden just about anywhere you can stick them: a crack in a wall (with permission of the owner), behind a sign, in a potted plant, behind your Uncle Earl’s left ear, or anywhere else your mind can imagine.
I could see these little drops being a cool way to spread the word about your band, art, or other electronic media by way of a digital demo. What better way to seed your information out there than by giving it away to folks that don’t have to visit a website or even have a connection to the Internet to do so. All they need to do is plug in to a USB Dead Drop and download the files.
I genuinely like this idea and can’t wait to create my own Dead Drops to contribute to this project. It’s one of those ideas that sounds interesting, but after seeing over 800 of them presently being tracked around the globe, it would appear to be nothing less than fantastic.
Sure, many of these might eventually be destroyed by Dennis the Menace, but the idea of being able to share some of my digital creations with the world by way of a little USB drive located somewhere in the concrete sea known as the city is quite appealing. Perhaps this may seriously take off, and we’ll start seeing local bands, artists, and other digital media creators distributing their creations to the world by way of these cool little plugs.
Then again, I could just be one of those wide-eyed optimists who believe everything is cool and interesting. So what about you? Do you think you would ever plug in to a Dead Drop should you come across one during your next walk about town?
Photo By: Aram Bartholl