In 1937, Texas suffered its third-deadliest disaster, when a natural gas leak at a school in New London caused an explosion that killed nearly 300 people. When extracted from the ground, natural gas is odorless, and a leaking pipe in the school went undetected for days until a spark triggered the blast. To ensure such a tragedy would never happen again, Texas passed legislation mandating that a pungent smell be added to all natural gas. The rest of the world followed suit, and that’s why you can now smell when someone leaves a stove burner on by accident, or when there’s a gas leak in your house.
Now, artist and graphic designer Leanne Wijnsma wants to do for data what Texas did for natural gas. She wants to make it smell.
“In the news, there’s always a lot about data breaches and privacy,” Wijnsma tells The Verge. “And everyone says, ‘I’m going to change my behavior and protect myself better and not give away my data,’ but somehow change does not happen. The internet is an addictive machine, and when you want to Google something, the first thing you think of is not the risk. You just go for it.”
To make people aware of their data leaking on the internet, Wijnsma built what is basically an air-defreshener. It’s a hexagonal resin block with a perfume reservoir inside. It connects over Wi-Fi to your computer, and when it notices a possible data leak (like the user connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi network, or browsing a webpage over an unsecure connection) — puff! It releases the smell of data.
“On the internet we are warned quite a lot visually, and through sound, but somehow, smell is missing, even though it’s the most instinctive way of communicating,” says Wijnsma.
Data smells like metal and citrus, apparently
What does data smell like? Well, a little bit metallic and a little bit citrus, she says. The former is supposed to bring to mind all those metal components: the computers, servers, cables, and so on. And the latter is to “trigger action,” and get the target user up and moving to fix the breach.
Wijnsma says she designed the scent herself with help from a specialist lab, but won’t be revealing the specific recipe. She adds that it’s not too unpleasant, though, unlike the chemical added to natural gas (mercaptan), which tends to remind people of rotten eggs and moldy socks. “The plan is to exhibit this device and do talks... so it can’t be too gross,” she says.
The device is just a concept for now, but Wijnsma says she may manufacture it and start selling it in future. (It was first developed last year, but Wijnsma will be exhibiting her work alongside a short film in a number of venues in October and November.) After all, data leaks aren’t going to go away anytime soon, so shouldn’t we do something to make them more noticeable instead? Exploring new ways to warn internet users about privacy isn’t an idea to be sniffed at.