What the heck? – hacking HEK

Above: Video and post on Facebook notifying the Haus der elektronischen Künste of the hacked audience award poll. Please note that you will need to disable plugins such as Facebook Container to view this video from Facebook.

Since 2016 HEK the Haus der elektronischen Künste (House of electronic Art) in Basel have organised a net-based award for art that employs the “Internet as a platform for artistic activities”. In addition to a jury prize, an audience award is voted for by internet users on HEK’s website. Votes are cast through Pinpoll, a web-based poll system, that can and has been easily hacked in the past. The poll was hacked in 2017, presumably by one of the artists nominated for the award, with first and second places surpassing other nominations by over 1400 votes. Yet for the 2018 award HEK continue to use the same flawed polling system.

As a consequence, the award is reduced to little more than a fixed popularity contest. It is discussed on social media with derision, users and artists wonder not which artwork will win but instead which hacker or bot will dominate the voting. This is unjust to nominated works and does not raise the credibility or profile of net-based art.

In the last week of voting for the 2018 award (19th – 26th of May) I deployed a clicking application to cast over a thousand votes through TorBrowser. It raised several of the poorly performing nominations above the winning nominations and arbitrarily selected one to win by an exaggerated number of votes. The intention was to undermine HEK’s confidence in their poll, confound the process of selection of the audience award and hopefully sufficiently embarrass HEK to abolish it in coming years.

Poll results

Above: Audience award poll results for 2018 and 2017. Click to view larger images.

On May 30th HEK confirmed in a press release that the audience award was hacked and stated what action they took with regards to the prize money of CHF 500.00:

The voting result of the audience award was deliberately manipulated by a third party. For this reason, no audience prize will be awarded this year and the prize money of CHF 500.00 will be distributed equally among all 10 nominated artists.

The aim of the manipulation was to point out the vulnerability of online voting systems. We have always been aware that it is possible to hijack a “Pinpoll” vote. We also know that hacking is used as an artistic strategy. In this case we share the criticism of the technological means, but find the articulation of this criticism rather destructive, since the audience prize is not intended as a cash prize, but serves to generate visibility for artistic works.

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