If you see USB keys cemented into walls in your city, you're not hallucinating. They are part of an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network.
The project of plugging USB keys into walls began in New York in 2010 and was conceived by the artist Aram Bartholl as a way to encourage a sense of participation and sharing, to 'uncloud' your files.The project involves placing USB drives inside walls in certain well-frequented public spaces with the aim of sharing artistic messages. To access the information, all you need to do is connect a laptop via USB or use an extension cable, without the need for Wi-Fi.
What's inside these USB drives?
Originally, the USB drives are almost entirely empty, except for a text file titled "readme" with instructions on how to access the project. Anyone passing by the USB drive can copy photos, music, texts, and videos to it, or download them to their computer if they are already on the drive. The project aims to highlight the "principle of participation and sharing," as mentioned on the official website of the initiative, which is called Dead Drops. The artist describes the project as a way to 'uncloud' files, that is, to stop relying upon popular cloud storage accounts like Apple, Google or Dropbox to save content. In reality, it's not at all practical or safe to store files on Dead Drops as there is no way of knowing if they'll remain there or be corrupted. It is, however, a fun way to share content with an anonymous offline community.
Not only does the website provide instructions on how to embed the USB drives in walls, complete with mortar and plaster, but it also features a comprehensive map showing where they have been installed around the world. According to the map, 2,276 USB drives have been embedded in walls in various cities around the world since 2010, offering a total of 70,475 GB of storage. When drives are installed, users often add photos of the location and descriptions of how to find it, or even suggestions for what kind of content is inside. However, many users have noted that over time the drives can become damaged, vandalised, or just disappear altogether.
Is it safe?
Dead Drops is an interesting art project, however it obviously does not prioritize cybersecurity. Because anybody can install or access Dead Drops, they keys could contain absolutely any kind of file, including pronography, or nasty viruses. Therefore we recommend exercising caution if you take part in Dead Drops, and protect your devices!