Dead Drops are subversive, cool and risky

Dead Drops are USB keys embedded in walls or other fixed objects. Courtesy of

Dead Drops are USB keys embedded in walls or other fixed objects. Courtesy of

Have you ever just been walking down the street only to glance over at the wall beside you and notice the butt of USB key sticking out of the bricks and mortar? Neither have I. And yet, this might become a familiar sight in the not-too-distant future if a new movement known as “Dead Drops” starts to catch on.

The brainchild of Aram Barthold, a Berlin-based art student, Dead Drops was conceived as an “anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space.” The name comes from the practice used by spies and other folks engaged in clandestine activities to pass information to one another without meeting face-to-face. In this most recent incarnation of the idea, a participant identifies the location of the dead drop, shows up with a laptop or other device equipped with a USB port, and uploads or downloads files to or from the embedded USB storage device.

What kind of data is on one of these digital protrusions? Anything at all. That’s both the promise and peril of Dead Drops.

Clever marketing companies will realize the potential of Dead Drops to reach a highly sophisticated group of consumers who are young, tech-savvy, urban-dwelling and likely influential in their social media circles. Uploading a previously unreleased track from a new album, or digital coupons for products could yield impressive viral results very quickly. Or the files could simply end up being deleted by the next person who jacks in. In the wild west of Dead Drops, there are no police, no back-ups and no guarantees.

One of Canada’s only two registered Dead Drops at the time of writing, is installed in the wall of an enterprising book store in Carelton Place – just outside of Ottawa. Read’s Book Shop invites Dead Droppers to “plug in” to their store and “Check for future book reviews and coupons!” Take that, Chapters. Barthold’s site contains a database of other Dead Drops too.

The dark side that this unfiltered sneaker-net enables is easily imagined: What better place than Dead Drops to try your hand at releasing the next killer Windows virus into the wild?

As with online file-sharing, all the same rules and guidelines apply to Dead Drops, only more so.

Apart from the digital safety issues involved in jacking a strange device into your computer, there are some physical concerns to consider as well.

Jacking into a Dead Drop. Courtesy of agoasi on Flickr.

Jacking into a Dead Drop. Courtesy of agoasi on Flickr.

Usually when you plug a USB key or similar device into your machine, the relationship between the two objects is similar – your computer is the bigger of the two items and typically doesn’t move around much.  USB keys are very light and place almost no stress on the USB ports. That means unless you’re being careless with the USB device, the odds of damaging either gadget is low. That model gets turned upside down (sometimes literally) when you’re dealing with a Dead Drop. In this case, the USB device has no give whatsoever. Depending on the height, angle and orientation of the Dead Drop, you might have to hold your PC to the wall or other host material at an awkward angle while you try to navigate menus and folders with your remaining hand. I hope you buy a netbook before going on a Dead Drop scavenger hunt!

A Dead Drop, seen mid-installation

A Dead Drop, seen mid-installation

Barthold’s site contains tips on how to mount your Dead Drop so as to minimize these difficulties for users, but my advice is to go to your nearest dollar store and buy yourself an extension USB cable of at least 3 feet in length. This less-than-a-cup-of-coffee investment might save you from having to replace a damaged USB port, cracked motherboard or worse. Plus it will eliminate the stress on the Dead Drop too – don’t forget, these things are just off-the-shelf USB key for the most part and they won’t survive abuse. They may not even survive a winter.

Is Dead Drops just the latest flaky internet craze, right up there with Rick-rolling, or are the current handful of USB-encrusted walls just a drop in the bucket of what’s to come?

Maybe the next great idea will arise as a result of these anonymous, disconnected micro-vaults of information. Perhaps an exciting counter-culture will emerge that will thrive in the ad-hoc environment of Dead Drops that can’t be controlled by any one entity.  I’d like to think we’re looking at a new wave of urban geo-caching where the sight of seeing someone huddled against the wall of darkened alley bathed only in the glow of their laptop screen brings a knowing smirk to our lips. But I fear it will simply become another avenue for the distribution of material that we as a society could do without.

Readers, what do you think?



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  2. Mac

    Your fears are groundless and pointless. The issue is distribution methods, not content. We’re talking about data storage and sharing techniques, not the data itself. What society “could do without” is ultimately, a personal choice. I think this is a fun and adventurous idea.


    • Simon Cohen

      I hope you’re right, but two thoughts:
      1) You can never really separate the medium from the message. In the end, it’s always about the content.
      2) What society wants is by definition a collective choice, not a personal one. Unless you live on a desert island. By yourself ;-)


  3. Merc

    I can hardly wait.
    Yesterday’s glory hole = today’s USB dead drop

    In fact…

    Here. Impromptu cartoon related:

    [Editor’s note: might be NSFW]


  4. Anonymous

    This is idiotic. You guys do know that you can buy cords right? You don’t have to plug your laptop directly to the USB-wall… you can plug a cord into the wall, and the cord into the computer… Also, with them mounted in this way, they’re guaranteed to be damaged pretty quickly. A single hobo pushing a shopping cart could scrape across the walls and rip them all to pieces. People walking buy will brush across them, inevitably breaking them, and if all else fails, a random douche with a rock might just think you’re dumb and smash them off. Some advice. Use cords, and embed them deeper into the walls.