Like some elaborate spy communications network, an art project that began three years ago by prompting people to embed USB thumb drives in structures has caught on like wildfire.

Dead Drops, as the project is called, now has more than 1,200 locations worldwide where anyone with a computer and a USB port can anonymously plug in and upload or download files -- sharing who they are or what they care about or love.

The premise: cement a thumb drive into a wall with just the port protruding, and leave its location with photos in the Dead Drops central database.

According to the creator of Dead Drops, German artist Aram Bartholl, the project is a way to "un-cloud" file sharing -- that is, remove it from the Internet in a time when governments are spying on the online public.

"Dead Drops is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space," Dead Drops' manifesto states.

While the first Dead Drops participants tended to be music bands sharing their tracks, the project has grown to include thumb drives with movies, games, comics, and television shows. Others share poetry, family videos and photos or even art projects.

Bartholl started the Dead Drops project in 2010, while an artist in residence at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in Manhattan. He began by embedding 5 USB thumb drives in the walls of buildings around New York City, posting images of the locations on the photo-sharing site Flickr and an Internet home page for the project.

By word of mouth, the project began building momentum; within six months, it had spread from the U.S. to Europe.

Today, there are 1,218 Dead Drop locations worldwide, according to the project's database. The database page offers a the name of the thumb drive's location, which sometimes simply includes the participant's pseudonym, the address (including the city, state and country), and the size of the USB drive.

"It's about making people think about how we live online and how we live as social beings," Bartholl told Computerworld today. "It's to have people think about relations, what we do online every day, and how things have changed over the past 10 years [since 9/11]".

"And, it somehow turns the whole building into a drive," he added.

Bartholl's idea was based on an espionage method used by spies to pass items between two people using a secret location. The Dead Drop meant the two people never met face to face.

While Bartholl instructs participants to embed the flash drives in building walls, the locations over time have become as varied as the data stored in them. Dead Droppers now embed drives in walls, parking lot asphalt, bridge abutments and deep inside forests. One Dead Dropper embedded one in a palm tree on the campus of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

"I think it's attractive for large groups of people because it has the air of spying but also geo caching," Bartholl said. "It's about making people think about how we live on line and how the Internet is changing the whole sphere of how we live as human beings."

Some Dead Drop locations are in the heart of cities like New York, others are in the ruins of buildings in remote fields. Participants have gotten as creative with the locations as they have with the data they leave there.

The data stored on the drive is purely up to the person who creates the Dead Drops location. When a user plugs in, they can upload content and download some of their own, if capacity permits.

The embedded USB thumb drives run the gamut in capacity, from 64MB to tens of gigabytes. One thumb drive, inserted into a brick wall near the lakefront in Zurich, Switzerland offers 32GB of file sharing capacity. The drive is bootstrapped with a full copy of Wikipedia.

In Sydney, one participant claims to have installed a 120GB USB drive in one of brick walls on the campus of the TAFE NSW Sydney Institute. The Dead Dropper claims to be a "Chinese exchange student who is hoping to help."

Plug my computer into an anonymous thumb drive?

While Bartholl admits there are obvious security implications to plugging one's computer into a publicly accessed thumb drive, he points out that the file sharing on the Internet has similar risks.

"If I handed you a USB drive, you'd plug it in. But because it's on the street, it makes us think very differently about it," Bartholl said. "It's a lot about perception."

Dead Drops's website offers a "How To" instructional webpage for installing USB thumb drives into walls or other objects.

The page instructs people to first find or create a hole in a wall using a screw driver or some other hardened object. The USB thumb drive's plastic case is then cracked open with a flat putty knife. The USB drive's remaining memory board is wrapped in plumber's waterproof tape, and placed in the hole until only the USB port is exposed. Fast setting concrete is then used to cement the stick in the crack or hole.

"It's very easy to make one," Bartholl said. "Everyone can do it."

Not everyone involved in the Dead Drop project appears to play by the rules, but that's exactly what Bartholl had hoped -- that the project would take on a life of its own. For example, in Riverview, Fla., a Dead Drop location claims to offer 60GB of capacity through the use of an open wireless network, anonymously, of course.

"I invite hackers to come and visit my state of the art wireless drop. Just connect to the wireless network named "Dead Drop" and if you need to go to any webpage, it will redirect you to the drop's FTP and the FTP information. I'm not going to put it on here because it changes time to time," Dead Drop maker Gentoomen states on his location page.

There are now six wireless Dead Drops, including one named PirateBox, which is described as a self-contained mobile collaboration and file sharing device.

Another trend in Europe has been embedding USB drives in bridges, mirroring a romantic European trend of placing a lock on a bridge and throwing the key in the water - a symbol of everlasting love.

In order to find a Dead Drops location near you, the website offers a database with maps, street addresses and even coordinates in longitude and latitude.

"The nice thing is there's all these variations and spinoffs now," Bartholl said. "The art piece itself is everybody taking part. It's like a ongoing worldwide performance."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected]