Sabotage, Disappointment and DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge

December 23rd, 2009

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From DARPA: To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, DARPA has announced the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition that will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.

The challenge is to be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads.


When I first read this announcement, I thought it would start many funny types of sabotage I would later read about on BoingBoing. I also thought about my access to red weather balloons– this happened to be plentiful at the time. Then, a week before the day the balloons were to be out, I was invited to sign up on a website to join an MIT Red Balloon team, the URL being, suggesting that it was affiliated with the research lab I am part of at MIT. The site described the team joining procedure as follows:

We’re giving $2000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on… (see how it works).

A pyramid scheme for collecting eyes across the US, with monetary payoff as the incentive. Hm. I’m pretty sure this is illegal in many European countries, and although unfamiliar with American law, I really doubt that research groups at universities like MIT can start websites like this without approval from committees like MIT’s Committee On the Use of Human Subjects as Experimental Subjects. Turns out, the post-doc that started the website was part of the same group that was monitoring social interaction of the undergraduate inhabitants of an MIT dorm by monitoring the bluetooth interaction of their cellphones. How surprising.

Preparing for the battle against the minions of elected mediocrity! Also known as those who like wearing fluorescent and extra reflective outfits.

Either way, I wasn’t terribly worried about it, or at least I wasn’t led to more action then arguing with a few of my friends who had signed up (because they thought they could make a buck, or because they thought it was a ‘cool project’). Instead, I joined a small team of subversives in placing fake balloons around the greater Boston area.


We had a good time romping about and sending balloons up in Cambridge, Belmont, Somerville and some other places. We didn’t have time to stick around and pretend to be DARPA employees, but once back home, we uploaded some photos from iphones with hacked exif data to modify the GPS coordinates.

Later that day, it turned out that the MIT Red Balloon team won the Network Balloon challenge. So much for people who wrote computer vision scrapers to look at public webcams and teams that were trying to win and donate all the money to charity. No, really, the best motivator was a pyramid scheme. Yay.

Now, all of this government-funded research I did not support was painful, but then the worst part came when the director of our lab sent an email to the lab-wide list (hundreds of people) inviting us in all-caps and with 11 exclamation marks (misuse of punctuation of course added injury) to a celebration of the research group’s victory.

During the cake and bubbly celebration, the research group poses for the press

Seriously? We have people in our lab working on all kinds of very cool things– electric cars, smart prosthetics, cheap laptops, new kinds of imaging, more natural interfaces… and we bring in funding for our research on a regular basis. And now instead of celebrating a MacArthur or Knight Foundation grant, we’re eating cake and opening bottles of bubbly for winning money which has already been promised into an unregulated human experiment? We’re ok with people signing up for this so they can gamble with their private data (losing it to a military research agency)?

By sharing information on how we now communicate while under time pressure with a common goal, we’re providing the military with information with which they can better understand technologies of dissent. This is the same government that requested GPS location data from Sprint customers 8 million times and arrested people twittering about locations of police during the 2009 G20 summit. I’m not saying we should be dropping defense research, but can we at least not pretend it’s all a game, and that anyone can be a piece?

Having fun in Belmont is by nadya peek. she'd love to hear from you.