Why I am crocheting my data and you should too

by Michelle Nee

For years there has been a Google Drive folder nestled among my work and school documents titled, “personal”. True to its name, the folder contained all of my personal information I needed (or was told I needed) for things like registration, applications, purchases, and even a text file of all my Google searches. Then I received a “CRITICAL ALERT” email. My information was part of a data breach.

We often look at our personal computer as a hub of it all. The entirety of my identity has rested among text files and photos for years. Crucial information that I am too worried about having in a drawer, where someone else could find it, was put onto my Google drive. I grew up alongside the growing opacity within the Technology industry. It was easy to rest on the laurels of large tech companies’ credentials. But after the breach, I had to begin asking myself if the same tool I use to make myself known to the digital world and connect with others is the same tool I should use to store my personal data. After having my data leak as a part of a large Google data breach, I downloaded my data from Google using Takeout and sat face to face with the fact that I was the last person to get my hands on this information. Encryption became a (somewhat necessary) fascination for me. For years my fear had been hackers getting hold of my information. Now, my fear became not having control of my personal data. If by placing my data in cyberspace I am left vulnerable, why not store it by non-digital means?

Having physical data is not a groundbreaking idea by any means. In World War 2 spies would knit messages in a code to send back from behind enemy lines. This practice was mainly done by resistance fighters in Belgium during World War 2 but it is not the only time that craft encryption has been used. Female spies during the Revolutionary war would knit messages from behind british lines.1 During slavery freed slaves would create encoded maps on quilts to help other victims escape trafficking. In the province of Hunan women created a language known as Nüshuas a way to cope with the exclusion from hanzi writing, due to the fact they were women and not men.2 Women would embroider the characters hiding them in ornate or simple works. Oftentimes this practice is harnessed during resistance movements as the dynamic is often the hyper visible utilizing inconspicuous practices against surveillance of a large body and sometimes, such as in the case of spies employing this tactic, turning the eye back onto the surveilling power. Encrypting data using craft is not just a security measure but it also follows a long line of resistance and countering power imbalance.

Where a computer encrypts data using a cipher, the same can be done to store physical data by creating a crochet pattern that ‘encrypts’ data by converting it into a data visualization with a color and pattern key; or in the case of Belgian resistance members, knitting morse code into a sweater.3 Using this technique to store data means no third party has access to my data as no one has access to my home. The laws are lagging behind in regards to personal privacy and data protection.

After receiving my information back from google, I sat down and laid out all of the yarn I own. I assigned each color a number and created a sequence of colors and stitches for each letter of the alphabet. This was and still is my cypher. And then I began to physically encrypt all my data. A scarf with my date of birth. Gloves with yearly salary, 2019 on the right hand, 2020 on the left. I even made socks for my most used password. To use the vast majority of the internet there is a sacrifice of privacy, whether or not that sacrifice is known. The days I go to a pair of socks for my social security number as opposed to a photo saved in my “Personal” file are now my favorite.

Tracking data using a non-digital means has become a meditative act for me. I have developed both color coded and my own personal code consisting of a combination of specific stitches for each character. Developing a personal cipher is made easier by the precedents of code craft. While I use a combination of stitch sequences for my cipher the knitters of WW2 often used the knit and pearl to hide morse code in. With such a simple act, data is protected better than any security software. Each day I sit down and think about how I will encrypt my data as well as create a physical object to bring me comfort along with the peace of mind. I am suddenly aware of the true depth of my data when I look at the pile of crocheted information becoming larger and larger. The same data that has been collected ,willingly or unwillingly, for most of my developmental years. The first piece I crocheted was a doily containing my date of birth. I really enjoyed it. This practice is easy to pick up and recommended. Anyone can pick up a crochet hook, or knitting needle and create a cipher of their own. This personal cipher replaces the power back into the hands of the person not the corporation. Below, is my date of birth doily to exemplify just one of the possibilities for secure data storage.

  1. Monteiro, Stephen. The Fabric of Interface: Mobile Media, Design, and Gender. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017.
  2. Wu, Amy Suo, and Clementine Edwards. A Cookbook of Invisible Writing. Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2019.
  3. Zarrelli, Natalie. “The Wartime Spies Who USED Knitting as an Espionage Tool,” April 15, 2021. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/knitting-spies-wwi-wwii.
  1. Natalie Zarrelli, “The Wartime Spies Who USED Knitting as an Espionage Tool,” April 15, 2021, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/knitting-spies-wwi-wwii

  2. Amy Suo Wu and Clementine Edwards, A Cookbook of Invisible Writing (Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2019). 

  3. Stephen Monteiro, The Fabric of Interface: Mobile Media, Design, and Gender (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017). 

Dark Connections

The internet is made up of interconnected pieces of data about its users. Every website has trackers installed in it, mostly belonging to Google or Facebook, that keep tabs on the people using it. This data is neither protected or encrypted, often fully accessible to anyone with the means to access it. Though these companies store our data and use it to sell their products to us, they are in no way responsible for it. This entire system is almost always not implicit and shrouded in the background of its utility. This section aims to connect these dots that exist in the dark underbelly of the internet, that we have a vague idea about, but that are not necessarily clear.
Making these connections can make the online experience feel scary and unsafe, but it already is. Although governments and large corporations are often seen as the problem, the truth is that they are far less interested in you or I than someone who knows us personally and has an agenda that involves us. This section shines a light on the dark patterns that enable your data to be collected and potentially mobilized against your interest.

Digital Forensics

In order to combat the practice of dark data, one can exploit the loopholes in its architecture. But in order to do this, we need to at least comprehend the full extent of the information that is collected about us. It is now possible for us to demand the data that is collected about us, though this option is not directly obvious to most people. Resources like APIs, Google Takeout, and OSINT tools allow us to conduct small-scale investigations with regards to where our data lives and what data exists about us. This section is a collection of attempts by the authors to gain access to and interpret their own data that exists online.
However, awareness of the data does not guarantee its control. Google may give us a copy of the data that exists about us in its servers through its Google Takeout service; but this does not mean that that we now own this data. Google can still use it however it likes, it has not been deleted from their databases. We are being given only an illusion of control and this is intentional. Digital Forensics can only grant us a window into this massive machine, the machinations of which may still continue to be unclear. This section explores these windows and what they teach us both about ourselves and about the technology that we utilize.

Data Futures

What is the future of dark data? People are increasingly aware that information about them is collected online. Governments are making efforts to regulate Big Tech and protect the privacy of citizens. How can we imagine better ways to exist in the system? How can we protect ourselves from its repercussions? This section speculates how dark data is changing as a practice. It discusses ways in which people can take action and re-examine their browsing methods. The ideas discussed here think about how technology can be used to propose solutions to the problem it has created.
It is important to consider that the practice of data collection and exploitation is ongoing. There is no easy way out of these cycles. However, we would like to believe that sparking deliberate thought and action to help you orient yourself in this Wild West landscape can make the process of coming to terms with dark data easier.


This digital edition was compiled from scholarship, research, and creative practice in spring 2021 to fulfill the requirements for PSAM 5752 Dark Data, a course at Parsons School of Design.


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