Mozilla's Holiday Brand Project Was a Data Privacy Pop-up in NYC

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During prime holiday shopping season, a tech company lured unsuspecting passersby into a brightly lit storefront on Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan. It had the familiar, sparse design of a hip gadget store -- white walls, long white tables and displays on white pedestals. But this was not an under-the-radar Apple Store or mobile phone emporium. It was Mozilla's Glass Room, and the only thing the maker of the Firefox browser was selling there was an education in digital privacy and security, or what it calls "Internet Health."

Inside were volunteers dressed in white dubbed "Ingeniouses" who helped curious visitors detox their mobile devices from data-gathering invaders. Nighttime workshops taught people about Facebook tracking and how to "De-Googlize" their lives. During the 17 days the Glass Room was open, 10,000 people walked through its doors and around 1,500 left with a "Data Detox Kit," a virtual eight-day cleanse just in time for New Year's resolutions.

"It was designed to be an intervention to make people think," said Alex Salkever, VP of marketing communications at Mozilla.

Anyone who followed the Do Not Track movement as it kicked into gear around six years ago watched Mozilla as it doggedly pushed a pro-privacy agenda that often stood in contrast to the digital ad industry's ever-advancing data gathering practices. The cold war between the two fronts came to a head in March 2013 when Mozilla announced it would enable a setting that disabled third-party cookies in its next version of the Firefox browser by default. The move prompted the Interactive Advertising Bureau to pronounce it "a nuclear first strike against [the] ad industry." Later that year the digital ad industry's privacy self-regulatory group pulled out of a worldwide consortium that had attempted to devise a Do Not Track standard.

Amid fears of a more aggressive surveillance state environment under the incoming Trump administration, influence of the Russian government's hacking and cyber propaganda on the U.S. election, news of smart home devices collecting data on real-world personal conversations, and the ubiquity of digital interactions in our daily lives, the Mozilla message surely has a receptive public.

Opened Nov. 29, the Glass Room featured 54 artworks by international artists visualizing digital concepts, serving as part explanatory exhibit and part social commentary. One art piece by The Office for Creative Research was a rolodex with bits of information on each individual card, creating an analog version of a person's online behavioral profile. Another involved actual brain scans of artist Sam Lavigne to inform an algorithm that toggled between two states -- "shopping-like" or "death-like." While in shopping mode, the system filled e-commerce shopping carts.

The project was inspired by a museum exhibit curated by Tactical Technology Collective, a group of artists and activists, which was viewed by the Mozilla leadership team in Berlin in April. Mozilla collaborated with the group for this initial iteration of the Glass Room in the U.S. Recognizing that New York City tourists and others traipsing down Mulberry -- best known as the home to Little Italy's annual summertime Feast of San Gennaro -- probably would not be in the proper frame of mind for an educational museum exhibit, Mozilla "wanted to make sure the experience felt really engaging for a shopping street," said Janis Greenspan, brand strategy director at Mozilla.

"This was a test case for a non-Berlin, non-museum audience, and also it allowed us to be in sort of the center of popular culture," she added.

Other artworks painted a picture with location data. Artist James Bridle produced a printed book featuring more than 35,000 physical locations he visited, as traced by his iPhone. He named the piece "Where The F***k was I?" Another exhibit gave people a glimpse of how beacon technology is tracking the presence of mobile devices in public and commercial spaces across the globe. Using the technology, an 80" monitor displayed information associated with every device present outside the Glass Room in real time.

Mozilla was not storing that data, or keeping digital tabs on visitors to the Glass Room. While standard marketing operating procedure might entail asking people for an email address or coaxing them to share data-rich selfies tagged with the Mozilla brand and the store's lat-long coordinates, Mozilla refrained from that.

"In order for it to be authentic we have to really think about how we respect visitors' privacy," said Ms. Greenspan. "It doesn't align with either us or the way we're approaching this."

Following a successful stint in Nolita, Mozilla is mulling the next iteration of its privacy storefront exhibition, said Ms. Greenspan, who noted, "The interesting thing about internet health is that live experiences are able to tell the story in ways that articles and digital experiences really aren't."