Disrupt the NSA with 'scary' stories, 2013

Benjamin Grosser (US)

07.08.15 – 01.11.15


ScareMail is a web browser extension that makes email ‘scary’ in order to disrupt National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance. Extending Google’s Gmail, the work adds an algorithmically generated narrative containing a collection of probable NSA search terms to the signature of every new email. This ‘story’ acts as a trap for NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, forcing them to look at nonsense. Each email’s story is unique, in an attempt to avoid automated filtering by NSA search systems.

One of the strategies used by the NSA’s email surveillance programs is the detection of predetermined keywords. Large collections of words have thus become codified as something to fear, as an indicator of intent. The result is a governmental surveillance machine run amok, algorithmically collecting and searching our digital communications in a futile effort to predict behaviors based on words in emails.

By filling all emails with ‘scary’ words, ScareMail proposes to disrupt NSA search algorithms by overwhelming them with too many results. Searching is about finding the needles in haystacks. If every email contains the word “plot” or “facility” for example, then searching for those words becomes a fruitless exercise. A search that returns everything is a search that returns nothing of use.


Artist Benjamin Grosser creates interactive experiences, machines, and systems that explore the cultural, social, and political implications of software. Recent exhibition venues and festivals include Eyebeam in New York, The White Building in London, the Media Art Biennale in Wroclaw, the Athens Digital Arts Festival, FILE in São Paulo, and Museum Ludwig in Cologne. His works have been featured in Wired, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Neural, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, FastCoDesign, Gizmodo, Engadget, Al Jazeera, and The New Aesthetic. Benjamin’s recent recognitions include First Prize in VIDA 16, a Net Art Grant and Commission from Rhizome, and the Expanded Media Award for Network Culture from the Stuttgarter Filmwinter.

Q and A

What is your favourite dark corner of the internet? — not really that dark. Hacker News provides a lens on not only the emerging technologies from Silicon Valley but also the neoliberal worldviews that drive its development.

What are the geographic coordinates of your favourite secret place?

GUdLN4EsJWecq8dzFvLeppCBoLqZClm5zxTsgY1rkNY= (sorry, because it's a secret I encrypted it)

What kinds of private information do you think will be valuable in 2050?

Will there be private information in 2050? If so, I think any private information will be considered valuable because it will be so rare.