Why Two Artists Installed a Spy Lamp at McDonald's

Coversnitch is "bridging the gap between online and IRL" in the most terrifying way possible.


Screenshot/Conversnitch video

"Yeah right. Don't you know Loretta's an Aquarius?"

That's one snippet of conversation secretly recorded at an unspecified New York City McDonald's and broadcast on Twitter via @conversnitch, a project "bridging the gap between online and IRL" in the most terrifying way possible. It sharply highlights how easily we could all be surveilled without the slightest knowledge of it.

The conversations are being picked up by a device attached to an unassuming McDonald's table lamp by artists Brian House and Kyle McDonald. This "conversnitch" device cost under $100 to make and can plug into any ordinary light fixture. 


Using a microphone, a Raspberry Pi mini-computer, and the locale's own Wi-fi, conversnitch streams recordings to Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online temp worker marketplace. Mechanical Turk freelancers then transcribe and tweet out bits and pieces of the digitally eavesdropped conversations. 

This has been going on for nearly seven months. 

"Conversations are fleeting in person, they last briefly and then disappear," McDonald, an adjunct professor at the New York University, told British magazine Dazed and Confused.

"It's exactly the opposite of everything the internet is. With everyone keeping more personal records every day, and various governments and corporations doing similarly, how much longer do we have until the idea of a fleeting moment, much less a private one, is a complete impossibility?"



As the video below shows, conversnitch is small and undetectable enough to be installed in restaurants, in libraries, on street corners, or just about anywhere. The code's available for free here. "Here were Brian and I trying to make something kind of scary, something that makes you wonder if someone's watching you all the time," McDonald said in an interview with Wired. "And then Snowden says, 'They are.'"

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  1. Mechanical Turk freelancers then transcribe and tweet

    You notice they don’t use voice recognition.

  2. “Conversations are fleeting in person, they last briefly and then disappear,” McDonald, an adjunct professor at the New York University, told British magazine Dazed and Confused.

    Coincidence? I think not.

    1. “Conversations are fleeting in person, they last briefly and then disappear.”

      Wow, man. Like, cosmic.

      1. Unlike H&R comments.

  3. This is all just a setup to catch the Hamburglar plotting his next heist.

    1. I bet the Hamburgler and Grimace have some juicy conversations…

    2. …and he’d have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for…

    3. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the violation of the Hamburglers liberties was merited.

      /Clarence Thomas

    1. How do you find these videos? Also I’d love to see your youtube recommended videos.

        1. You might know.this:

          In the mid-late ’90s there was a “band” called “Wonderbus” That was supposedly made up of mentally handicapped members. They did a song called “Shit my Pants” among.others. I think their promoter/producer was shamed or otherwise quit it. I haven’t been able to.find.d any reference to them anymore; it is like the.internet was wiped clean of their.presence.

          Any leads?

          1. You know, I kinda remember hearing about them from the same guy who introduced me to Wesley Willis.

            Now I’m curious…

          2. Google found this…

            posted October 22, 2003 10:56 AM Hide Post
            I don’t know what to say. As I think of Slo Mo, I am reminded aof a band called Wonderbus. It was a retarded punk group. They had songs like “pissed my pants” and “warmth of my own shit”. Supposedly, the drummer was forced to run on a giant hamster wheel and eat hot dogs until he vomited at the end of each show. Neat!

            1. You used to be able to download their songs online. My copies got lost or.destroyed.somehow. I remember the proto-concern-trolls having a shit fit about how the poor performers were being.exploited. And it did.sound like.they weren’t treated very well.

      1. HM has a proprietary “gratuitous ass” search algorithm built into his daily Google alerts.

  4. Um, srsly? Super creepy. SUPER. Creepy.

  5. So why haven’t Brian House and Kyle McDonald been arrested yet?

    1. I don’t guess I understand why. If they were sitting in the next booth tweeting random snippets of overheard conversation, would it be illegal? I hope it isn’t, because I’ve been known to publicly share stupid things I hear in the next booth over the internet.

      1. In a lot of states what they did counts as wiretapping.
        While recording government officials doing their jobs should always be legal, whether you inform them or not, I think making it illegal for private parties to bug each other is probably reasonable.
        You don’t have a reasonable expectation that the person in the next booth won’t overhear you and repeat what you said, but I think you do have a reasonable expectation that a lamp in McDonalds isn’t recording your conversation.

        1. If McDs gave permission, line up the class action lawyers. If McDs didn’t, slap House and McDonald in cuffs.

          1. And line up the class action lawyers against McDonald’s anyway – an entity with deep pockets is involved.

            Sharks smell blood in the water.

        2. This violates even the single party rule.

        3. Do I have to drink with all those “reasonables”? I think that this is probably not a criminal matter, although McDonalds is welcome to pursue them in civil action. Unless they stole the lamp in the first place, there’s nothing criminal about private citizens doing this to private citizens as long as they aren’t using the information in order to defraud or blackmail. I don’t think its a good thing, understand. Just that it isn’t in any way criminal.

          1. Yes, get drinking!

            Do you mean criminal in the way things should be sense, or in the actual current law sense?

            1. Should be. I’m sure this is totally illegal in NY.

          2. there’s nothing criminal about private citizens doing this to private citizens as long as they aren’t using the information in order to defraud or blackmail

            I suspect that if you use an IR camera to record your neighbors fucking in their backyard after dark, you would find yourself in trouble with the law.

            Electronic surveillance (of sounds and images) is different than having your actions monitored by the eyes and ears of other people.

            But I expect the law today doesn’t directly read upon the actions taken by House and McDonald. But that wouldn’t stop form ambitious prosecutor from ruining their lives.

            1. When will I get in trouble? AFTER it is made public and they are identifiable. If nobody can identify them, and I choose not to, there’s no problem. That is, when the potential for fraud and blackmail exists, it may become illegal.

              Also, what if I’m in my own yard? Can I still not record them fucking? Do they own the light on my property after it reflects off of them? I understand that it is distasteful to you (I don’t like it either), but it shouldn’t be a priori illegal.


        Do your products have microphones?

        Our covert cameras do not have microphones.

        Our non-covert cameras may have microphones depending on the model.

        In general, most video only recordings are legal weather you inform the persons you are recording them or not.

        Recording audio without the persons permission is almost always illegal,
        that’s why our covert cameras don’t have microphones.

        1. The conversnitch video is a public confession of an ongoing criminal enterprise.

  6. *Seizes desk lamp, ties black bag over it, pours bucket of water onto its head*


    1. “Don’t get short with me!”

    2. Then realizes that black bag was a plastic trashbag and

      a) lamp didn’t get a bit wet


      b) lamp died of asphyxiation during interrogation, without revealing anything.

  7. Isn’t this illegal?

    I really hope that Brian House and Kyle McDonald get slammed for this.

    But, of course, they are ‘artists’, so Salon will love it.

    1. I really have no idea what the term “artist” even means anymore.

      1. “smug egotist”

      2. art?ist [ahr-tist]
        1. someone who places a crucifix in a jar of urine

        1. That’s more of an example than a definition. And Mapplethorpe was a very talented artist. I think “Piss Christ” is really quite a good artistic photograph despite the intentionally offensive title.

          1. Sorry, Andres Serrano did Piss Christ. For some reason I always think Mapplethorpe did it.

              1. And whatever it represents, it’s a striking and beautiful image. If you don’t like the urine aspect of it, just imagine it’s in amber instead of piss.

        2. “someone who places a crucifix in a jar of urine”

          Does shitting on the Constitution count?

          In which case, the US has been governed by ‘artists’ for some time.

      3. It’s easy. Anyone who creates art is an artist. Anything that is presented as art is art. The presentation is what makes it art. If I take a shit on a mattress and put it in a gallery it is art. If a bug splats on my window and looks just like the Mona Lisa, it’s not art.

        What constitutes good art is a much more difficult question. Too many people want to use their own tastes in defining art generally.

  8. What’s amazing is that some asshole hasn’t created a twitterbot that grabs snippets of Hit y Run comments and tweets them to various government officials’ handles.

    1. You didn’t . . . .

      1. “Mary” did a blog about Hit and Run comments.

        But the only hits were H&Runners; looking to see if they’d been quoted.

        1. But she had thousands of readers from all over the world! She even had a map!

          1. They were all Tulpa sockpuppets.

    2. Someone should print out a copy of Warty Hugeman and send it to all of Congress. Like random people do with 1984.

      1. Please don’t. The last thing we multistate pork project to create a.functional timesuit. Or a Futurecock.

    3. We’ve got the reverse procedure pretty well implemented, though.

    4. If some asshole hasn’t it’s only because some dickhead beat him to it.

  9. Due to some people clinging to their incandescent bulbs, the Department of Energy will soon mandate that every home light fixture be replaced by a similar, “CF-only” lamp.

  10. After examining all that the conversnitch captured they drew the conclusion that of the hundreds of billions of conversations every day 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999 % are meaningless bullshit that have little or connection to reality.

    1. Ugh. Reminds me of my conversation analysis days. I hate fucking transcribing that stuff.

  11. Although this article is titled “Why Two Artists Installed a Spy Lamp at McDonald’s” I still don’t understand why anyone would want to do this.

    1. I get the sense that food snobbery might be a factor.

      1. “I wonder what the peasants talk about when they eat?”

      2. So they’ll now reveal they installed a similar device at the artisinal mayo shop down the street, where the conversation was much more stimulating.

  12. Could an establishment or household block Wifi? And perhaps only allow registered devices to operate? Could make that a business selling point-‘you’re private here’.

    1. Yes, but that negates the point of having it in a public space since no one would be able to connect to it. Doing it at home, on the other hand, is essential if you don’t want your neighbors downloading kiddie porn over your connection.

      1. An acquaintance had that very thing happen to him. Wifi with no password got him a visit from the swat team.

  13. Luxo Jr. has really sold out, since his Pixar days.

  14. What an asshole thing to do. I hope they get their faces smashed in.

  15. And people thought I was crazy when I tell them my refrigerator is spying on me!

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