PRISM: The Beacon Frame

Approximated NSA Surveillance Field Technology. GSM and WiFi interceptor

Oliver and Vasiliev, 2013


PRISM: The Beacon Frame is a speculative, functional response to the general absence of information as to what NSA PRISM equipment actually looks like. Centered with the image of the prism, the project seeks to provide public direct contact with the aesthetics, technology and strategies used by states against their publics (and others), retained from critical contact by an opaque and coveted surveillance culture.

The project was initially developed in two days by Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev as part of ArtHackDay Berlin, September 2013. It was further developed for the Transmediale 2014 main exhibition, featuring selected works from ArtHackDay.


This iteration of the project is a field deployable wireless surveillance and GSM interception unit comprising a robust tripod, large glass prism, nano computer, nano projector, GSM antenna and cellular communications base-station (also with computer).

It employs the same techniques of wireless (WiFi) device localisation and mapping, cellular network hijacking and wireless packet inspection known to be in use by state sanctioned surveillance agencies such as the GCHQ (UK) and NSA (USA).

When activated, the computer scans for local cell towers owned by mobile service providers (Vodafone, o2, AT&T and so on), building a list of their unique properties. The prism then begins rotating and one by one each cell provider is impersonated by the PRISM tower. Activated mobile phones in the presence of the tower will hop onto the rogue network, ‘recognising’ its properties and believing it to be trustworthy.

At that point they are each sent SMSs of a troubling, humorous and/or sardonic nature. Data corresponding to these events are projected through the prism, in turn showered onto the walls in a rich and exploitative light show.

Audiences peering into the prism ‘see inside’ the internal workings of this intervention, from the unique ID of the phone intercepted to messages sent.

Projected onto a wall behind the tower structure is a data-rich, dynamic 2 dimensional map of all WiFi enabled devices in the vicinity of the installation. Typically comprising smart-phones, the location, unique ‘hardware fingerprint’ and hostname (“Tara’s iPhone”) are plotted on this map, updated with every movement by the owner of that device. Audiences in room with the Tower may note their friends approaching, merely by recognising their name on the map.

Transmediale 2014 takedown controversy

On the opening night of Transmediale 2014, the project spoofed and sent SMSs to over 740 devices in the main exhibition hall, without any interaction from users. Many more devices were spoofed the following day prior to the project being spontaneously sabotaged by Transmediale contract technical staff, followed by the threat of reporting the artists to the German Federal Police.

Please see the Official Site below for more details, controversy coverage and images of the project.

prism2 prism3


The military-grade case contains a tiny computer (running GNU/Linux), nano projector, wireless network adaptor and large solid-glass prism.

When activated, the prism begins rotating while the embedded computer listens for connection requests from devices made to local wireless access points. When detected, the hostname and unique hardware fingerprint of the device is projected through the prism and onto the surrounding environment; a subversive and exploitative light show.

The Beacon Frame refers to an intrinsic technical element of a far more insidious second phase of the project to be presented at Transmediale 2014.

prism4 prism5


The below site contains many further details about the project, with particular detail given to the Transmediale 2014 takedown controversy.

Build Your Own GSM Research/Interception Station

The below link is to a HOWTO I wrote some years ago detailing all the hardware, commands and freely available software tools necessary to get up and running with a small footprint GSM base station suitable for portable, battery-powered applications.

NOTE: I cannot guarantee that it even still runs on contemporary hardware. Nonetheless there for reference.