Features / Focus

Digital Archives and Disasters

posted 14 April 2022

On December 17th 2021, The 2021 KAMA(KAMS Art Market & Appraisal) Conference was held online under the title “Art Market Going Online : Changes, Chances, and Challenges.” The conference identified the market’s shifting trends and new consumers, and examined the trends in NFTs and the metaverse, two concepts that emerged as keywords last year. Furthermore, it discussed the sustainability of the online art market through a discourse on security and data loss in a digitized art market, the environmental crisis triggered by the digital industry, and the legal policies and economic prospects of the cryptographic art market. This article is from Session three, Seeking Sustainability : Art Market in the Online Habitat, in KAMA Conference.


Digital Archives and Disasters

‘Digital archives and disasters’ is based on chapter 5 (written by Gaeun Ji) of a co-authored book titled, 『Share Me: Imagining the Future of Art after Catastrophes』.1) The book was published by Meetingroom2) in 2021. Chapter 5 examines “Archives and Disasters.” It provides a broad overview of physical and digital disasters that archives may encounter. The chapter concentrates specifically on art archives built and managed by public art galleries and museums with the purpose of preserving cultural heritages. Therefore, archive disaster preparedness and response measures discussed in the article may not necessarily apply universally to all archives that differ in form or nature.

Nonetheless, certain aspects still deserve our common attention. Environments for digital technologies are evolving rapidly. Climate change is accelerating as well. Experts predict that our future will frequently present us with a wider array of unforeseen disasters, beyond pandemics like COVID-19. To meet these challenges, we have universal questions to ponder, such as the basic approach to disaster responses or the necessity for disaster preparedness. These issues need to be contemplated by private, corporate and institutional entities alike, although it certainly is important to take into account each archive’s specific nature and unique circumstances.

KT 화재.jpeg

KT Ahyeon branch in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul, ⓒNewsis, http://www.00news.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=55657

The Meaning of Digital Disasters

Digital archives and digital disasters will be mainly discussed here. Digital disasters are “disasters caused by a wide range of digital risks such as technological errors and acts of cyberterrorism, including cyber infringements and hacking that could incur societal and economic damage to people’s lives and properties, as well as to a nation as a whole.”3) One prime example of a digital disaster occurred in Korea three years ago. In November 2018, a fire broke out in an underground cable tunnel at Korea Telecom’s A-hyun branch in Seodaemun-gu. As a result, KT’s broadband and wired/wireless communications services were interrupted and the impact of the fire was extensive. Neighboring areas, and even some distant metropolitan regions, were affected. ATMs and credit card readers stopped working, in addition to cell phones and public pay phones. Money withdrawal, transfer and credit card payment services were disrupted, virtually halting all manner of e-commerce and banking operations in the affected areas. The fire was extinguished within a day, but damage recovery took over a week. Compensation took even longer. KT had to pay as much as tens of billions of Won (KRW) in damages. An unexpected shutdown of KT’s telecommunications network put a brake on relevant economic activities and people’s livelihoods.4)

This episode clearly showed us how a physical disaster that occurred offline could paralyze telecommunications and broadband networks and what massive damages and repercussions it could incur. We learned that offline and online disasters, such as fires and server breakdowns or hacks, are not separate from each other. Rather, they are closely correlated. Particularly in a society like Korea with advanced IT technology and a higher level of digital informatization, the risk of digital disasters becomes greater.

Expansion of Creating and Distributing Digital Content in the Art World

Online dependence is growing in the art community as well. The ecosystem of the online art market continues to evolve.

Initially, it began as a part of our efforts to ride out the pandemic. Art galleries and museums at home and abroad began to open up their archives to communicate with their audiences. Now, they are moving further, proactively creating and utilizing various forms of open digital content to encourage audience participation, involvement and communication. Now, art galleries and museums are fundamentally rethinking their social and cultural roles.

The art market is also shifting, with exhibitions and sales moving to online platforms. An abundant supply of digital information — more plentiful than offline — is offered to fill the void felt by audiences unable to enjoy artworks in person. Blockchain technologies are utilized to provide information on artworks. Transactions and provenance are being archived already. Built on this work, the rising NFT (Non-Fungible Token) art market has drastically expanded the possibilities of digital platforms. 5)

With a larger volume of digital data due to increased production and sharing of digital content, coupled with more diverse online channels to share it, risks increase significantly along the complex information-distribution path within the systems. Naturally, greater effort is needed to identify and contain these risks.

The Broad Meaning of Digital Archives

The term “digital archive” in my talks encompasses a very wide range of categories and forms. In computing, digital archives may mean (1) temporary backups of digital files. The term is used more loosely in online spaces to refer to (2) a database, an integrated collection of various information and materials from the past. In a broader sense, “digital archives” refer to (3) digital content that is created, collected and shared by multiple users. The participation of numerous users now allows digital knowledge to be continuously mixed and produced.

In a museum or art gallery, digital archives encompass the following: digital administrative records produced by the institution, physical collections owned by said institution and digital collections composed of digitized physical collections of art archives. In the art market, digital archives entail records of artworks owned by galleries or auction houses and digital data containing sensitive information, such as customers’ personal information. Furthermore, though it doesn’t fit the technical definition of an “archive,” a digital art collection is at times regarded as a digital archive, not to mention the advent of digital content such as NFT art, which is now an irreplaceable cog in the crypto-trade market.

Cases of Digital Disasters in the Art World, Their Aftermath and Risks

When it comes to potential risks, dangers, and the aftermath of digital disasters, we need to remember that the digital archive is not only a storage unit but also a platform that is constantly changed by the many users of the digital content. It’s important to consider in tandem the infrastructure of the digital system in which the archive is distributed, and the types of IT technology used therein.

Ransomware Attacks on Cloud Services

Digital disasters also occur in the art world. Here are some examples. First, we have the 2020 ransomware attack on Blackbaud, a software company that provides cloud services. As a result, personal information was stolen from approximately 200 cultural and artistic institutions in the United States and United Kingdom, including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Trust. The leaked information included names, addresses, phone numbers, ownership of artwork and donation records. Initially, Blackbaud announced that sensitive data such as financial information and Social Security numbers were not stolen, and that measures had been taken to prevent further damage. But it was later revealed that a hacker organization had been paid a certain amount of Bitcoin to destroy the leaked information in its entirety.6) Numerous institutions, including those in the cultural and artistic community, often rely on cloud services to back up and manage their digital data. When they do, the main functions of data management and security are delegated to the company that provides those services. As a result, institutions have little choice but to depend on external resources for data security.


Art Basel, Image provided by Art Basel, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/art-basel-data-breach-1234608383/

- Data Hacking with Subsequent Potential Damage

Another example is the case of Art Basel. In October 2021, there was a hacking incident at MCH Group, the parent company of Art Basel, hose security was breached by use of malware. In this case, important information about the world’s largest art fair was targeted and actual data were compromised.

According to Art Basel, the hackers may have gained access to data such as customers’ personal contact information, but the extent of the breach was still being determined. Omitting further details, Art Basel urged its patrons to change all of their passwords. Officials speculate that Art Basel has already negotiated with the hackers and paid a sum to minimize its patrons’ confusion and anxiety over the hack. The data theft unsettled art dealers and galleries that had formerly participated in Art Basel about the possibilities of secondary or tertiary damage, such as financial fraud.7)

Email Phishing

Email Phishing scams by email also happen in the art world, at times via business emails sent daily.

One such scam happened to the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede in the Netherlands. In 2020, the museum was in the process of negotiating via email the purchase of a John Constable painting through the Dickinson Gallery in London. During the back-and-forth, the museum, deceived by a hacker who had intervened in the conversation, remitted billions of money to a fraudulent bank.8)

The Emergence of Blockchain Technology and NFT Art

Cases like this show that the era of distributed storage of data and smart contracts has arrived, thanks to a breakthrough technology called blockchain, which compensates for vulnerabilities in online financial-transaction security and data storage concentrated in a single cloud server. In the art world as well, blockchain-based platforms provide services such as data management, art guarantees and appraisal or evaluation of artworks. There is also, of course, the rise of NFT art.9)

Each NFT file is given a unique identification code to represent a unique digital asset and guarantee sole ownership of it. This has opened channels for the digital art market that had previously been undervalued because of issues of authenticity and possible reproduction.10) Thanks to its high level of security, for instance data integrity and transaction transparency, the cryptocurrency craze has gone mainstream all over the world. Cryptocurrency-exchange hacks are also now regular news, some resulting in the theft of huge amounts of money. Here, we can see that while the blockchain cannot be forged, altered, or deleted, it can be hacked.