IMterview with Nathan Willis

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Nathan Willis is a freelance photographer/artist from Abilene, Texas. He is currently selling 80 hours of advertising space on his fingerprints on EBay. Bidding is up to $1.25 and rising.

His self-described goal is to point out the patent absurdity of biometrics as a security method as well as our tendency to over-advertise on every surface imaginable. We talked to him this morning over AIM.

Nathan Willis: Knock knock. Nate Willis here. Barely awake, but here. Fire away with questions whenever ready.


Gizmodo: ok
tell me about the impetus for this project? what were you thinking about?

NW: Well, convergence of unrelated news items. There were a slew of biometric product stories and I happened to catch one about people selling ad space on their foreheads etc. on eBay. It just came together. Conceptually, though, I've followed biometrics with skepticism for a while. I was influenced by a lot of what Bruce Schneier has written on biometrics. Start with… — good background material.


He's just a good source for security stuff in general, so he's unbiased and hard ot impress.
The gist is that first and foremost, a biometric is an identifier only; it's not secret. That means that by analogy it's a high-tech substitute for a username, not for a password. But suppliers talk about it like a password replacement.

G: why advertisements, then? why not put tom cruise's face on there? Make it even less unique.


NW: Well, recent-public-behavior aside, advertisers are regarded in our culture as the most unscrupulous denizens on the planet. Can't sell to criminals after all, but everybody knows advertisers will stop at almost nothing. So it has shades of your worst fears coming true, but not quite as unethical.

Fingerprint biometrics I think are particularly hilarious because of how fingerprint technology was first used: crimefighting based on the fact that people leave their latent prints on every surface they touch.


To take that biometric and try an substitute it for a secret password is so absurdly naive it makes me laugh out loud.

On the other hand, the advertising business is centered around the concept of "impressions" or views, as you well know. In this case, it's just literal impressions


G: what are things going to look like in 50 years if we keep this up? what dystopian vision do you have for security?

NW: There's an episode of Futurama where Fry (the character from our era) has a dream that's filled with product placement. So of course he freaks out; he runs in to tell all the characters born-and-bred in the year 3000, and they don't see what the problem is. Leela asks him if they had ads in the 20th century and he replies, "yeah, but not in dreams. Only on tv and radio...and in magazines...and movies. And at ball games, on buses, and milk cartons, and t-shirts, and bananas, and written on the sky. But not in dreams!"


G: wonderful. have you gotten any odd responses from the auction?
any weird emails?

NW: Much to my surprise, no. People seem to get it right away — which I wasn't anticipating — and there have been no outraged complaints or anything of that nature.
Maybe ebay is more cynical than I had predicted.


G: what do you think about ebay in terms of a medium for this sort of thing? why has ebay become the marketplace for social commentary? I'm thinking of the grilled cheese Mary as well, which is a commentary on the need for miracles.

Like this ...….

NW: Well, it's obvious choice. Of course the "network effect" means that everybody does better if only one auction marketplace dominates, and it just happens to be eBay. I mean, if not eBay then where? It probably works because of it's complete democratization — no barrier to entry; if you have some idiotic idea for something to sell, eBay makes it easier than falling down. And because it's basically the world's collective junk sale, if there's anybody on the planet interested in your goofy little item, they'll find you on eBay whereas they couldn't a decade or so ago and you'd go bankrupt sitting in a make-shift roadside stand off the highway, trying to attract motorists' attention.


As far as the commentary aspect goes, I'm certainly trying to make use of it, but by no means does it make sense to me. Maybe it's just becoming an entertainment venue as well as a "legit" marketplace — perhaps people are rewarding these weird sellers because they made us laugh with their idea. I think there's some value to that.

G: what's next? embedding advertising in your DNA?

NW: Hmm. I was thinking contact lenses for eye-scanners. Still no good ideas for voice-print systems yet. But I'm open to suggestion.


G: do the dna. you'll turn into the hulk.
only instead of green you'll be philips blue
or be covered in swooshes.

NW: I think somebody already did tattoos on ebay.... I don't remember if they were temporary or permanent though....


I thought that was a good one

Maybe you could have plastic surgery done to look like Mr Clean or Cap'n Crunch....


G: i'd pay for you to do that