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Pranksters publish secretly-recorded public conversations to make point about NSA

New York artists posing as 'freelance' NSA agents are secretly recording the private conversations people have in restaurants, and then publishing them online for all to hear.

'Freelance' NSA spies say they've installed audio recorders in cafes, bars, restaurants and gyms around NYC

While presented as an actual NSA initiative, the creators of wearealwayslistening.com make their actual views clear with a prominent link to an ACLU petition about letting Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire. (wearealwayslistening.com)

If you'll be hanging around New York City at all in the near future, you may want to hold off on the gossip — at least while you're in public.

A group of anonymous anti-NSA activists claim to have placed hidden recording devices in restaurants, bars, gyms and cafes all around the city to eavesdrop on citizens' private conversations.

While, as some have pointed out, this claim cannot be verified, a series of recordings uploaded to the group's Soundcloud page and website last week have got many people talking.

WeAreAlwaysListening.com started blowing up on the viral web over the weekend after being spotlighted by a few high-profile Twitter accounts (like the ACLU's) and publications (like WIRED.) 

Presented as the homepage for an actual U.S. National Security initiative, the "about" section of the site reads:

"Eavesdropping on the population has revealed many saying 'I'm not doing anything wrong so who cares if the NSA tracks what I say and do?'  Citizens don't seem to mind this monitoring, so we're hiding recorders in public places in hopes of gathering information to help win the war on terror."

The site also explains that excepts from some recordings will be published in the interest of "greater transparency."

So far, six secretly-recorded conversations have been featured by the group, their contents running the gamut from inane to insane (or, rather, insanely embarrassing.)

In one audio clip taken from a Brooklyn restaurant, "a fetish-fueled hookup reveals perversions which shall be kept on file," according to its description.

Another, recorded at a Cafe in the East Village, is simply the audio from a rather boring job interview.

The latest clip's accompanying text indicates that it may be the most privately-intended conversation published by the group to date: "We're listening as you cut up friends behind their backs... Asians belittling other Asians for sounding too Asian."

When asked about the legality of their project by the Guardian late last week, members (who spoke under the condition of anonymity) said that they had been careful not to release "anybody's first and last names" with the recordings — though, as the Guardian notes, two names were heard in one of the tracks on the site last Friday.

"If it turns out that it's illegal, we'll put a full stop to it," said a group spokesperson. "We'll continue to keep the country safe from terror until then." 

The refusal to break NSA-agent character appears to be standard for the group, which makes its actual views on the U.S. phone records program leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 clear with a prominent link to an ACLU petition about letting Section 215 of the Patriot Act expire on its website.

As for the veracity of their recordings, the project creators are adamant that they're 100 per cent real.

"We can attest to the fact all people recorded are NOT actors and are not knowingly involved in the project in any way," a spokesperson told WIRED in an encrypted email.

WIRED soon-after received an envelope containing one of the group's tape recorders (the cheap kind you can buy "for a few dollars at Best Buy," according to the Guardian) and a USB stick containing the following video, which shows a recorder being planted beneath a restaurant table:

CBC's Day 6 spoke with one of the project's creators by phone Saturday, asking, among other things, how he would feel if one of his private conversations ended up online.

"I assume my private conversations are being listened to by many," the artist replied. "That's an assumption that most people should make, that their private comings and goings are not are not completely between the people that they think they're having them with."

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