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They Know, by Christian Gross

Understanding the full impact of mass surveillance by visualizing what the government agencies are capable of

November 11, 2014

[This is a guest post by Christian Gross* about his visualization project “They Know”]



Short project description

The “They Know” project website presents a fictional mass surveillance software, based on the information Edward Snowden leaked in 2013. This fictional software was designed to inform and raise awareness for this topic.

The whole website is part of the bachelor thesis “Interface design in government surveillance between fiction and reality” by Christian Gross. The thesis was created at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam under the supervision of Prof. Boris Müller and Prof. Dr. Marian Dörk between March and June 2014.


How did you get to the subject?

In 2013 when Snowden leaked information about mass surveillance, I worked for the German online newspaper ZEIT ONLINE. I could see in my daily work how difficult it was to inform people about their privacy issues. Nobody seemed to care. I thought it would be a great challenge for my bachelor thesis to find out why and raise awareness for mass surveillance.

How did you work?

I started with a hypothesis: “We are not able to understand the full impact of mass surveillance, because we don’t have images of how mass surveillance could look like“.

First I watched spy movies to find out if there exist images in films and how they look like. It was kind of a dead end. Most of the newer movies dealt with the topic, but didn’t show any usable interfaces. That led me to a more theoretical approach to understand how important those images are. I found a book called “Discipline and Punish”, written by the French philosopher Foucault. This book gave me a perfect starting point for the importance of images as well as how to deal with the surveillance and its hidden nature.

After the theoretical research, I collected the leaked information from major news outlets like the Guardian or the Washington Post to get deeper into the subject. The information was overwhelming and I had to figure out how to deal with such a big amount of data. I decided to design an information graphic to understand the structure and methods of mass surveillance. The resulting infographic gave me the chance to show how the collected data can be formed into information and how that could look like. Those patterns helped me to start with the design of the surveillance interfaces and their content.

During the design phase I started with brainstorming sessions about user needs and the kind of data I would like to show. I did researches on visual analysis and how existing surveillance products work and look like. With this information I designed my first wireframes. I’ve used them to discuss my ideas with my supervisors at the university. They came up with the idea to do a short movie to communicate the problem of mass surveillance in an easier way. The challenge of making a movie with application screens changed the way I dealt with the software. I had to find out what I really want to communicate, instead of making a real surveillance software. The final software concept is a mixture of helping to raise awareness as well as showing of what the government agencies are capable.

(image: datavis contact networks | sketch of “They Know”, by Christian Gross)
(image: datavis life pattern analysis | sketch of “They Know”, by Christian Gross)
(image: datavis life web analysis | sketch of “They Know”, by Christian Gross)
(image: sketch of “They Know” software interface, by Christian Gross)
(image: sketch of “They Know” software interface, by Christian Gross)
(image: unused wireframe threat node based search | sketch of “They Know”, by Christian Gross)
(image: unused wireframe threat overview| sketch of “They Know”, by Christian Gross)

Which challenges did you tackle?

The software should be authentic, able to communicate and understandable for a wide range of people. Beside that, I wanted to produce a smart and aesthetic interface that shows my design skills, without helping the wrong people. It was hard to find the right balance between those four points.

(image: “They Know” surveillance software – suspects overview, by Christian Gross)
(image: “They Know” surveillance software – person web analysis, by Christian Gross)
(image: “They Know” surveillance software – person overview, by Christian Gross)

(image: “They Know” surveillance software – person Instagram, by Christian Gross)
(image: “They Know” surveillance software – person mail, by Christian Gross)
(image: “They Know” surveillance software – person locations, by Christian Gross)
(image: “They Know” surveillance software – person contacts, by Christian Gross)
(image: “They Know” – Surveillance windows xp blank desktop, by Christian Gross)

What did you learn through the work?

As a private person, I learned to think about what data I want to share. I accepted the fact, that every data I put online could be possible available for anybody. I started to reduce the usage of different online applications like Foursquare or Instagram. I also tried to find alternatives for different online services like email or cloud storage.

As a designer, I learned that I’m responsible for my clients and their costumers. We have to think about what client data we really need and how we use and store it.

As a data visualizer, I learned that big data is maybe the spice of the 21st century, but the important task is to ask the right questions. Any data can be misused and we should find the right ethical approaches to deal with that. It is not about the charts we produce, it is about their meaning and the actions others come up with through them.

(image: “They Know” – infographic poster, by Christian Gross)


*Christian Gross is an interaction designer based in Berlin, Germany. He studied communication and interface design at the Bauhaus University Weimar, the University of Applied Science Potsdam and the Zurich University of the Arts. During his studies he worked for several European and American design companies like Square or Interactive Things. In his work he focuses on user experience design as well as data visualization. He currently works at Ming Labs, a user experience design and data visualization studio. You can contact him at [email protected], or connect with him at Twitter (@christiangross), Pinterest and LinkedIn. For more of his works, don’t forget to check out Christian’s website.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.