Sunday, 6 October 2013

ATM Hacking and the Art of Hole-in-the-Wall Detournment

The Automatic Teller Machine is one the primary interfaces we have with the banking system. It's a machine of convenience, replicating what a human bank teller used to do. They're often placed next to physical bank branches, reinforcing the widespread notion that the money coming out of the wall somehow came from 'inside' the bank. Given that the majority of our money is in fact electronic, and stored in a bank's datacentre-based IT system, nowhere remotely close to the ATM, this is something of an illusion. Indeed, the ATM  can echo and reinforce much of the disconnection implicit in the broader banking system.

That said, the fact that people are constantly using ATMs makes them great venues for symbolic pranking. Maybe one could call it, like the situationists did, detournment - the art of throwing people's minds into an unexpected detour whilst they trudge through otherwise unthinking everyday practice. The hope of such a situationist prankster is to make someone reflect about the deeper meaning of economic life. Alternatively, it may be simply to have fun. What follows are some ideas and examples from the cutting edge of ATM artistry and activism (horray!).

Difficulty level 1: ATM as billboard
Plastering an ATM with stickers is a straightforward tactic for the social justice prankster. Here's an example from Rainforest Action Network activists who designed a sticker replicating the Bank of America ATM screen to protest BoAs funding of coal power. Options offered include 'Bankroll Climate Change' and 'Fund Executive Bonuses', forcing the user to reflect on the implications of the bank's continued support for a high carbon future (albeit it's possible that it also drove them into a rage at their inability to use the machine).

Difficulty level 2: ATM as street art

ATMs are economic installations, so why not use them as sites for further installation artworks? Here's one example from Jason Eppinks: He designed a magic spigot that gushes forth with whatever is inside the thing the spigot is attached to. In this case it gushes forth dollar bills (which admittedly are attached to a string).

Difficulty level 3: ATM for homemade money

If you make your own DIY money, you need your own DIY ATM. The Dutch money-artist Dadara uses Exchanghibition Bank, an outlet to dispense his hand-designed bills to members of the public. Ok, it's not quite an ATM, but it's only a matter of time before he automates it. (Dadara also lent his designs for a limited edition version of my book - check here)

Difficulty level 4: ATM as musical instrument
To do this you just get an ATM and attach it to a medium-sized pipe organ, or perhaps a synthesiser. I'm not entirely sure what the point is, but perhaps it's to give a person a audible sense of the consequences of their banking decisions. If you'd like to hear it in action, check out the video here.

Difficulty level 5: ATM as games arcade
Now we get a little bit more complex. Certain ATM designs have technical glitches that enable you to override their normal functionality. With a bit of practice you can play Angry Birds on your local Russian ATM whilst listening to Zero Day by the long-forgotten 90s hard rock band without a Wikipedia page, Nevada Beach. For more info on this, see here.

Difficulty level 6: Build your own ATM
My greatest ever Lego creation was a Landrover I designed from scratch, equipped with a winch, engine and moving propshaft. These guys though, have used Lego to make an ATM, a technically challenging task even for Lego obsessives. The beautiful thing about this is that by it's very nature Lego is deconstructable: thus, unlike your traditional ATM which exudes a lack of trust from under its armoured exterior, this machine relies on trust, and believes in the best in people. Only a complete arsehole would try to break up another's Lego creation.

Difficulty level 7: The ATM as Robin Hood
At the 2010 Black Hat hacker conference the late great Barnaby Jack demonstrated how to 'jackspot' an ATM, using some technical wizardry to get it to spit out money in a manner reminiscent to the Doctor Who episode 'The Runaway Bride'. This is of course illegal, so if you're going to do this, please make sure the proceeds go to a worthwhile cause.

The Next Step: Alternative Currency ATMs
The potential to subvert ATMs goes beyond immediate jamming of conventional finance. There is also the opportunity to promote alternative versions of finance. For example, Bitcoin ATMs have already been designed, and I've previously suggested that I'd like to see Brixton Pound ATMs. I'm going to start working on some schematics for that (and download some DIY engineering courses at the same time). If you have any ideas for other cool ATM artworks, pranks, and (legal) hacks, please do share.


  1. Never imagined that a ATM can be hacked to transfer funds.3

    Silvester Norman

    Change MAC Address