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  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

Cashing in my personal data for chips at London's gambling pop-up

If a gentleman makes his own luck, then I’m no gentleman. Just a month ago, I draw Germany in a World Cup sweepstake only to cheer on a team that would rather roll over to South Korea than give me the satisfaction of winning £70.

It’s only money though, eh? And as anyone bored enough to read pages of tedious privacy policies will know, every one of us is sitting on a goldmine. As the old adage goes: ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.’

Making that point all the more obvious is the Black Box Bellagio: an art installation/casino where data is the currency, and your chances of winning big are improved through transparency. In between talks at this year’s FutureFest, I hit the tables to find out if Lady Luck was smiling upon me… or at least curious enough about my private information to flash a grin. “Do you have Facebook connected to your smartphone?” the greeter asks. “Yes,” I reply. “Are you willing to show me?” Similar questions follow, with proof required that I have at least three privacy-sucking apps and have a university degree, before the questions get more personal. “Is anyone here on birth control, and willing to prove it?” Perhaps pessimistically – although, for all other purposes, realistically – I didn’t figure I’d need condoms at a technology festival, so I shake my head.

“At FutureFest we were very surprised to see how far people would go to prove to total strangers that they were on birth control/contraceptives,” the project’s co-creator Roos Groothuizen tells me later. “ There was one instance where a lady showed her upper arm and started wiggling her implant around with her fingers.”

I lose points for going freelance, confirming my mother’s worst fears about my future, and I’m not getting any luck elsewhere. I can’t prove I’m married, because I’m not; over the age of 36, because I’m not; or have over £22,000 because, thanks to the aforementioned career vortex, I definitely do not. So these are the chips I’m given. My personal worth coming to 1,700 of a possible 2,700. It’s now up to me to make the most of them – and to do so quickly, because I’m due at another talk. What’s the best way to burn money?

Not BlackJack, it turns out. Not because I can count cards – at least not in anything but the most literal, useless sense – but because this version of BlackJack doesn’t use chips. Instead, it’s me against the dealer, but rather than gaining currency, the winner gets to sabotage the loser’s Facebook profile by liking a page chosen by a spinner wheel. On my first go, I overplay my hand and go bust. I spin the wheel and become a fan of… Eddie Stobart. Well, that could have been worse.

We go again, and this time I hit a solid 18 before sticking. The dealer hits 17, and now it’s my turn to sabotage her profile: which is duly done for an additional like on ‘Meat is Murder’. It turns out that this profile doesn’t belong to the dealer herself, but to Groothuizen, whose Facebook account is well and truly vandalised with controversial interests. “In the beginning I got a few digital ‘eyebrow raises’ from friends after I liked the highly controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders,” she explains. “Now, they know what’s up when I suddenly like 50 pages in one day, but it’s scary to see how seriously friends and other people can take your digital persona.”

She actually enjoys this, pointing out that if you like enough random things, you essentially become invisible to an algorithm unsure of how to cope. She’s been showered with ads for groups like ‘Not ashamed of Jesus Christ’ and the fanpages of both Alex Jones and Stephen Colbert. “It's liberating. It's better than deactivating it, trashing it."

So far I’ve gained a hitherto unknown fandom of Eddie Stobart and boosted the vegetarian cause, but I’ve not lost any chips, so I rush to the roulette table: a place when a fool and his money are traditionally easily parted.

As you can see from the picture, certain squares are blocked out, and can only be bet on by certain people. I have to get rid of my chips quickly, so it’s all about the numbered squares. It takes me three turns. I’m very good at this

The poker table, Groothuizen tells me, is where privacy is really lost though. It works like a regular poker game, except players can get new cards or view other peoples’ hands if they’re prepared to reveal private information from their phones. Would you show your last Uber trip, your last Amazon order or your bank balance to a table of complete strangers?

Not understanding poker, for me, the question doesn’t arise, but others aren’t so lucky. “Someone had saved a porn video on their phone with sounds and everything, and they had to show everyone,” says Groothuizen. And he still didn’t win: “It cost him a lot,” recalls the project’s other creator, Ymer Marinus, who took the chips that day. Even for those that do win, Marinus reckons the dopamine rush of triumph is only temporary. “You can come in and experience it as a game thing, and you win chips and then you go home and feel good,” he says. “but you will feel uneasy after a few days.”

Groothuizen agrees: “I think in the rush of the game you completely forget what you're doing, and then once it's finished you think 'wait a second, I just shared all my personal informations with complete strangers.’”

“Which happens all the time online,” Marinus chips in.

Pockets empty, on my way out of the casino, I spot a fruit machine that doesn’t need coins: instead it takes a photo. In a perfect allegory for our general use of the internet, I don’t bother to read the smallprint on this gift horse and let it take my picture. This, it turns out, could have been a massive mistake:

My face used for catfishing. Or a face that looks a bit like me, only with less hair than I remember. I’m later told by Groothuizen that this doesn’t really happen, but it’s a moot point: for today I am lucky after all.

3,000 coins is not what I’m looking for when already running late for a talk, but there is a side effect to winning, I discover later: “You were the one who won the jackpot?” asks Groothuizen, surprised. “You erased all the pictures! We were saving every user's picture and publishing it to the website. You deleted the whole database – a hero amongst men,” she laughs.

All in a day’s work, I guess. What were the odds of that happening off the back of two spins? “Super small,” apparently – this happened twice over the weekend from over 400 spins. “You were very, very lucky,” Marinus says. I am, apparently, a rabbit’s foot for privacy advocates.

Not everyone walks away feeling happy with the exhibit though. “The most remarkable thing is that people actually feel violated, and they have a lot of questions,” says Marinus. Some are physically angry and upset, he says, while others just refuse to play at all. But that’s not an option on social media: something the pair of them acknowledge. “The not participating option seems a bit extreme and you're a social hostage,” says Marinus. “If you don't have it, you can't participate in society.”

“It's also strange to make the end user responsible,” adds Groothuizen. “Shouldn't the company be responsible for ethical use? Why should I be the person to deactivate my account?”

She shouldn’t, of course, but then real life isn’t like the Black Box Bellagio. The house always wins, one way or another.

This piece was originally written for me for publication on Gizmodo UK - a site that no longer exists. As such, with the site wiped from the internet, I assume there's no harm in republishing, but if any rights holders disagree, then please do get in touch.

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Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet


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