A spy agency used this artist’s work without permission


The classified slide featuring Roberto Campus's artwork. (The Intercept)

Illustrators have gotten used to seeing their work being used without permission or attribution, especially online. But one of Roberto Campus's illustrations ended up somewhere he never expected: A top secret government document used to explain a targeted hacking system. An image of a cyborg monkey battling a robot that Campus created for a collectible trading card game ended up in a presentation about QUANTUM, a program run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and British Intelligence agency GCHQ.

While the presentation originally released by the Intercept last week seems to have been drafted by the British, it is co-branded with the logo of the NSA's offensive hacking unit Tailored Access Operation (TAO) and appears to have been presented at a 2010 conference hosted at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.

Campus spent around two decades doing professional illustration work for comic books, trading card games, video games, and science fiction and fantasy novels, but now runs an online advertising company full time. He is currently based in Vermont, but was raised in Italy and became a U.S. citizen in 2006. 

 

The Switch spoke to Campus about the art that ended up in the presentation, his experience in the professional illustration field, and his reaction to recent surveillance revelations. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Andrea Peterson: How do you feel when you saw your work in classified presentations?

Roberto Campus: It was, in a way, funny. I totally understand that they're just a lot of geeks in that industry. I actually know someone who used to work at the NSA, and she's a pretty big geek like I am. But, every time someone uses my art without permission it's a little bit hurtful. It doesn't take much to ask.

But I guess in the case of secret operations, I guess they figure they don't have to, because they figure  nobody will see it. But it's a bit of a negative feeling. The other side of that I suppose is that they're the government and they're trying do something they feel is right so they feel they can take things as long as it's for internal use and not for commercial use . Again, I'm used to it.

Yeah, you mentioned it sort of comes with the territory. 

Every illustrator that I know routinely finds out  that some of their art is being put on T-shirts or mugs. Sometimes by one single person doing it for their own use, but more often than ever someone from China or Asia is actually making entire lines of products with stolen artwork. It's definitely more and more of a problem. [In response] we, as illustrators, are trying to minimize the resolution of the artwork we put online and only make high-resolution artwork available to clients. It's terrible.

Can you tell me a little about how you became involved in doing professional science fiction and fantasy art. I know your Web site mentioned your first job involved doing the covers for Italian Star Trek novels? 

Yes, that was a my first publishing deal. At the time, I was involved in the local comic book community -- I was only like twenty or something. Through contacts, I got in touch with a publisher, they saw my portfolio and got really excited. At the time I was painting with oils, but a few years later I shifted to digital because the time we are given to do projects is shorter than never now and oils take too long.

And the art used in the slideshow was for a trading card game called Shadowfist, correct? 

That was a great project -- I did several illustrations for them over a few years. They were mostly almost to the level of a sketch, not fully the quality I can bring for higher caliber projects. It was fun, and I would love to do more with them, but I think they sold the company some years ago. It was really a fun little project, and I think it found me some new fans, which is always great.

Yeah, it seems to have made it around the Internet -- I used TinEye to track it down and got back a number of results which eventually led me to your tutorial where it seemed to align with one of the variations. 

It's probably one of the in between steps of the tutorial. Tutorials were sort of my claim to fame a several years ago -- I was one of the first to do Photoshop tutorials, and Google used to rank me pretty high. Nowadays I don't show up so much since I haven't posted in several years, but I was published in magazines and several web sites reposted them. It was great.  I started doing digital in 1996, so it was pretty early on and I switched to Photoshop maybe a year later.

How have you the illustration industry change?

There are so many more of us nowadays. I think a lot of artists go straight into digital -- and the tools are incredible and they make so much faster. The pay rates are lower in general, in fact that is why I moved on to a different business. I started a tech company several years ago, and that's what I do full time now as CEO.

Definitely, the industry has changed. There is a lot more art in demand, but the pay rates are lower and the time given to complete the work is shorter than ever. I did a lot of professional work in comics. That's even worse. But the great thing about comics is the volume -- so you have to do fifty pages and you know you're going to have work for the next three months, so it's great. But the pay is even lower than normal illustration. And they have their own stable of illustrators they usually work with and it's really hard to get in with them.

Plus, now they buy the rights to the image and so it becomes their own. Back in the day, you could usually just sell the rights for a specific use, but the image would be yours. Now all the publishers want to buy the complete rights to the image so artists are like "oh, I can't use that anymore."

So, the specific image used in the presentation, did you sell all the rights on that to the company or did you retain that?

No, I just gave them the rights for the particular use, so the image is still mine. And anyone wanting to use it for any other purpose would have to get my permission.Which they didn't in this case.

Have you been following the revelations about government and NSA surveillance over the past year? Do you have any sort of opinion on them? 

I became a citizen in 2006. The first thing that they told us was to speak out on things that don't feel right. And I definitely think they're overstepping their bounds. It's one thing when you're spying on terrorist cells, but they're doing a blanket operation on everyone and there have to be limits there. They should get a warrant to spy on anyone if there's a reason to. It's all the warrantless infringement on constitutional rights -- for someone who just became a citizen and believes in all that, it kind of irks me.

Read more about the questionable art choices of spy agencies here

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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