Digital footprints on the dark side of Geneva

For this photo essay, Magnum Photos President Thomas Dworzak traveled to Switzerland and documented the lives of Geneva residents along with the digital “footprints” they leave behind every day. Drawing on research by the Edgelands Institute that explored Geneva’s evolving systems of everyday surveillance, Dworzak sought to use photography to tell the story of how the digitalization of our daily lives affects — and diminishes — our security.

Special series

This is the second in a series of multimedia collaborations on evolving systems of surveillance in medium-sized cities around the world by photographers at Magnum Photos, data geographers at the Edgelands Institute, an organization that explores how the digitalization of urban security is changing the urban social contract, and essayists commissioned by Coda Story.

Our first essay examined surveillance on the streets of Medellín, Colombia.

He accompanied Geneva citizens in their daily routines while documenting the digital traces of their activities throughout the day. Dworzak researched the places that store our digital data and photographed them as well — an investigation that proved difficult and revealing of the lack of transparency surrounding the handling and storage of personal data.

To conclude the project, Dworzak sent each of his subjects a postcard from places where their digital information is stored: a simple way to demonstrate the randomness of where our digitally collected information ends up.

Thomas writes: 

Do citizens of Geneva understand how surveillance takes place in their daily lives? The relationship between surveillance and power can be understood as a contemporary version of the “social contract,” originally conceptualized by the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 18th century seminal work on democracies.

As a photographer, I needed to set the place: Geneva. I wanted to play on the dark side of the quaint, cute and affluent image of one of the world’s wealthiest cities and the world of international relations in which the Genevans are so often entangled.

I needed to trace the connection between life in this comfortable European city and the hidden paths of information that form underneath a surveilled daily life. I spent time with a variety of regular Genevan people, all voluntary participants in our project. I photographed their daily routines, marking whenever they would leave a “digital footprint” when using their phones, credit cards, apps or computers. With the help of the Edgelands team, I then identified corresponding data centers around the world where their information was likely to have been stored. I created a set of postcards using open-source applications like Google Earth and Google Street View. These “postcards from your server” were then sent back to the respective volunteers from the countries where these data centers were located, highlighting the far-flung places that our private data goes to when they perform a simple task such as buying groceries or a bus ticket.

Geneva, December 2022. Davide agreed to let me track his digital footprints. Here, he shows his ticket on a train.
Geneva, January 2023. Postcard from the server. Google Earth screenshot of the location of the server where the digital footprints of Davide may be stored. Although corporate security and privacy policies prevented us from pinpointing its precise location, we were able to get an approximate idea of where individuals’ data was hosted.
Geneva, January 2023. Postcard from the server. A postcard from a server that may hold Davide’s data was sent back to Davide. This postcard was sent from a server administered by CISCO, at Equinix Larchenstrasse 110, 65993 Frankfurt, Germany.
Geneva, January 2023. United Nations Plaza. The broken leg of the “Broken Chair” monument, a public statue in front of the UN Palais des Nations. The statue is a graphic illustration evoking the violence of war and the brutality of land mines. It has become one of the city’s most recognized landmarks.
Geneva, January 2023. Postcard from the server. Google Earth screenshot of the location of the server where the digital footprints of Hushita may be stored. BUMBLE Equinix Schepenbergweg 42, 1105 AT Amsterdam, Netherlands. Hushita is another volunteer who agreed to let me track her digital footprints.
Geneva, December 2022. The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, is an intergovernmental organization that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. Established in 1954, it is based in a northwestern suburb of Geneva. CERN is an official United Nations General Assembly observer and is a powerful model for international cooperation. The history of CERN has shown that scientific collaboration can build bridges between nations and contribute to a broader understanding of science among the general public. In 1989, the World Wide Web was invented at CERN by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist.
Geneva, December 2022. Surveillance camera shop.
Geneva, January 2023. Postcard from the server. Google Street View. Screenshot of the location of the server where some of the digital footprints of Renata may be stored. Apple Data Center, Viborg, Denmark. Renata is another volunteer who agreed to let me track her digital footprints.
Geneva, November 2022. Proton corporate server in Geneva. ProtonMail is one of the world’s safest encrypted email services. Nicholas is another volunteer who agreed to let me track his digital footprints.
Geneva, November 2023. Renata uses a digital sports watch.
Geneva, ​December ​2022​. ​Digital footprints with Antoine. The bus stop near his flat is named after Jean-Jaques Rousseau's “Contrat Social.” Antoine is another volunteer who agreed to let me track his digital footprints.
Geneva, December 2022. Jean-Jacques Rousseau Island. The Genevan philosopher’s fundamental work on democracies is based on the notion of a “social contract.” The Edgelands Institute's Geneva Surveillance Report examines how the relationships between citizens and surveillance leads to a potential new social contract.
Geneva, January 2023. Postcard from the server. A postcard from the potential server location of Antoine’s digital footprint was sent back to him. This postcard was sent from the server location of GOOGLE MAPS Rue de Ghlin 100, 7331 Saint-Ghislain, Belgium.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

Support Coda

The Big Idea

Shifting Borders

Borders are liminal, notional spaces made more unstable by unparalleled migration, geopolitical ambition and the use of technology to transcend and, conversely, reinforce borders. Perhaps the most urgent contemporary question is how we now imagine and conceptualize boundaries. And, as a result, how we think about community. In this special issue are stories of postcolonial maps, of dissidents tracked in places of refuge, of migrants whose bodies become the borderline, and of frontier management outsourced by rich countries to much poorer ones.
Read more