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This Is How A Cyber Attack Became Art

One of the more powerful trends to emerge on the Internet in the last decade is the ability to crowdsource everything from information to inspiration to funding. However, when you open up a project so that content can come from anonymous people anywhere in the world, you often really don't know what you're going to get.

No one knows this better than the creators of Crowd Painter, a website that allows anyone with an Internet connection to paint a few strokes virtually, which a printer-like robot then translates onto an actual, physical canvas to create one painting out of many different people's strokes. When users go to paint, there's an image for them to recreate chosen by Crowd Painter's creators Trillane Burlar and Pindar Van Arman, but they can also just paint whatever they choose — and they do.

Pretty much what you expect people to draw when given the freedom to draw anything has ended up on the canvases, from strokes that actually try to replicate an image to devil horns to male genitalia. Sometimes people paint hateful words or symbols, such as the N-word or a swastika, and it was the latter of which that signalled to Burlar and Van Arman, Washington, D.C.-area technology artists who met while working on geospatial data visualization, that people were using their website for something more.

A couple of weeks ago, users began painting swastikas on what was intended to be a portrait of a young man wearing ski gear. But as soon as a swastika popped up, it would be turned into the word "LOVE." This battle, which you can see play out in the timelapse video of the painting below, raged on until finally the word "LOVE" prevailed and was then covered by thin strokes of greens, blues and yellows to form an abstract outline of the man in the original photo.

Van Arman believes a raid was taking place, which was when someone posts on an anonymous message board, such as 4chan or eBaum's World, encouraging others to perform some sort of activity on a website en masse. In this case, users flooded the canvas with swastikas as part of the raid.

"It's just like, what would people do when they're anonymous?" Van Arman said in an interview with T-Lounge over the phone. "It's like it's a visual representation of what's going on on the Internet. I have no idea what it is, but it's fun, and it's interesting."

Though Burlar and Van Arman obviously don't like to see hateful language or symbols, they don't want to censor them either. There's no limitation on what you can or cannot paint on Crowd Painter.

"We actually had conversations early on about whether we should [have a] delay or have some way and going in and say, 'Oh no, we're going to get rid of those strokes because they might be offensive.' Ultimately, we decided not to do that. And we decided not to do that because really it would be kind of not honest, if that makes any sense," Burlar said. "It's very hard to see the fact that, hey, there are people out there who are not necessarily doing good things, but there's enough people out there doing good things to kind of cancel the bad things out, and I think that's actually very powerful."

At that time, Burlar and Van Arman said this sort of activity on the site was rare for Crowd Painter since it launched last spring. However, shortly after this painting was complete, users didn't just inundate the robot with explicit words and images. They took it over.

Four cyber attacks have taken place on the site in the last two or three weeks, which Van Arman thinks involved a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack and a RDP (Remote Desktop) attempt. Someone even reverse-engineered the robot to send his or her own commands directly to it. Messages from the hackers that appeared on the canvas during the cyber attacks included "Stop Suppressing Art" and "My Art Is Not Vandalism."

When Burlar and Van Arman realize a cyber attack is taking place, they shut down and then restart the robot after putting in some effort to strengthen the robot's security measures. But while many people would be upset about hackers taking over and controlling their creation, Burlar and Van Arman are excited that people are finding creative, new ways to use Crowd Painter.

"Fixing up is a lot of work, but these are the most interesting paintings I've seen yet, and also part of the art is the story, you know, the back and forth between anyone that crowdsources," Van Arman said over the phone a week after our initial conversation. "These hackers, they're crowdsourcers. They're doing it in a different way than we designed, but it doesn't make it any less legitimate. And it's kind of neat, the story that's unfolding."

In fact, some planned updates to Crowd Painter may encourage even more trolling. Burlar and Van Arman recently filed a provisional patent, which they aren't seeking to make any money on, for a feature to make the robot translate the virtual strokes more immediately onto the canvas. If multiple people are submitting strokes at once, the robot could select which ones to paint based on popularity, for instance, possibly inciting users to fight for control of the robot. Var Arman sees it working similarly to Twitch Plays Pokemon, where Internet users simultaneously typed in commands on the video game streaming platform to work together to try and beat Pokemon Red. Burlar and Van Arman are also thinking about letting people flag inappropriate content or erase anything they find offensive, which, of course, has the potential to be used to get rid of nice-looking art too.

"It might be a total failure because it might be dominated by people drawing swastikas over and over and over and over again. They definitely seem to have more patience," Van Arman said. "But then again, it'll be all the more beautiful when something good does come out of it. It'll be an interesting story. It's just another experiment."

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