Miami's Dead Drop Art Project Failing Because Thieves Keep Stealing Public USB Drives

By the time Ronnie Pelham makes his third U-turn on North Kendall Drive, he's visibly frustrated. The directions to the Dead Drop are vague, and his GPS keeps telling him to retrace the same 300-foot stretch with his silver Hyundai. Finally, the 31-year-old notices a strip-mall alleyway lined with dumpsters and veers a quick right toward his target: a USB drive containing who knows what.

"Boom," Ronnie says, eyeballing a large transformer through his rectangular glasses. "This has to be it."

Ronnie isn't a spy on a reconnaissance mission for classified documents -- he's part of a geeky scavenger hunt for adults that reimagines Treasure Island as a commune. In 2010, German artist Aram Bartholl cemented five USB drives within parks, subway stations, and building façades in New York City. He called his project Dead Drops. The idea was that anyone could walk up, plug in a laptop, and take whatever other people had uploaded -- kind of like a glory hole for computer data. It has worked well in Europe and Canada, with people sharing photos, recipes, and creative projects on the drives.

The Magic City's OG Dead Drop was installed during the spring of last year, but Ronnie, a sound designer and jingle writer from Miami Gardens, expanded the network two months ago by taking a red Solo cup full of quick-dry cement to three additional spots.

Ideal locations get heavy foot traffic from creative types, Ronnie says. He knows all the nooks and crannies of downtown Miami from walking around stoned as a New World School of the Arts high school student, and he routinely notes sidewalk cracks and crevices as he traverses the Wynwood bar scene. He figured they'd make perfect neighborhoods to install USB drives and that he'd be able to start musical collaborations with those who discovered them. For good measure, he also stuck one near the University of Miami.

There's been one persistent problem, though: The drives keep getting stolen. To date, two of them -- so half -- have been swiped within days of their installation. Que Miami.

But until now, Ronnie has never had a chance to check out his original Dead Drop to see if it's faring any better. It's supposedly across the street from Miami Dade College's Kendall campus, "right behind the food spot," according to anonymous instructions posted online at deaddrops.com.

On a recent rainy Wednesday, he bounds across a grassy patch toward a transformer. From referencing a photo map printed off the internet, he knows the USB drive is behind it. Ronnie is so excited he leaves the Hyundai's door ajar. But then, crestfallen, he points to a white patch of glue residue. Someone has absconded with the digital treasure chest.

Unbowed, he vows to continue reinstalling the drives until someone starts participating with more than sticky fingers. "In my mind it seems so cool, and I just need other people to make it happen," he says back inside his car. "So far I haven't gotten jack shit."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter: @allie_conti

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.