On the nature of surveillance, self defense, and activism

This post was first published on SeattlePrivacy.org.

 
The Seattle Privacy Coalition instructed our first anonymous group of Seattleites who are victims of abusive surveillance or at risk of becoming a victim. Overwhelmingly, the students of our first workshop were women, even though everyone that attended ranged in age, background, race, nationality, ethnicity, and sexual-orientation. Despite their differences, their commonality was their genuine care for people — society — to such a degree that their non-violent actions are considered a threat to corporate and government power.

 

The concern

Almost 226 years ago, our fundamental rights as Americans were ratified. Broad protections were guaranteed to us against search and seizure, something that we, as a society, now sometimes call privacy due to the large amount of our lives willingly and unwillingly propelled into digital spaces. Objection to intrusive search and seizure of physical objects has evolved into our ability to control personal information made harder by advancing and cheapening technology.

 

Corporations, governments, and law enforcement agencies do not have a right to abuse people by way of deploying advanced technology. They may have the ability and privilege to do so, but that ability and privilege cannot and should not become a slippery slope to control people who are exercising their government-sponsored and government-protected right to protest perceived abuses of power. What is the significance of our constitutional protections unless we act, so that our rights become right and our values proven?

 

Despite the stark ethical differences between rights and privileges, activists are readily harassed, stalked, physically abused, or murdered. Anyone guided by justifiability and morality can understand why we need to support this vulnerable population of people.

 

The workshop

In large part, surveillance self-defense is about technology and education. Similar to the practice of martial arts, self-defense is learned by empowering one’s self with knowledge and control over mind, body, and environment. Understanding technological threats and assets will help non-violent activists achieve their goals. To best achieve our objectives, we approached this training with the wisdom of a teacher and also the curiosity of a student. Everyone there had something to share and learn.

 

Our students were not tech-savvy. Many of them had cell phones that were merely recommended to them by family members or casual friends. One of them had a Windows phone, something even our technologists didn’t know if it employs storage encryption. Even though only one person was the facilitator over the course of almost five hours of training, various Seattle Privacy Coalition co-educators were participants of the training and regularly contributed facts, metaphors, and applied real-time research.

 

We started off by introducing the Seattle Privacy Coalition and notable facts about the organizers, like not being associated with law enforcement or intelligence services. A story was told to create some initial privacy empowerment and a statement about everyone’s right to identity-self-determination while  participating in the workshop.

 

We started our curriculum by highlighting the cause of risk, which can be characterized by a balance between threat and vulnerability. Throughout the workshop, distinctions were made by attributing the specifics of scenarios to either a threat or a vulnerability to best appreciate any given risk.

 

The first tool provided to our students was not software; it was an information resource, one regularly brought back into the dialogue. The Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s (EFF) online guide titled “Surveillance Self Defense” (SSD) was chosen to be our primary reference material. Their amazing and much needed work is where we got the name of our new program. We think that the EFF’s SSD should discuss the notion of a vulnerability, not just the notion of a threat when assessing risk regarding “An Introduction to Threat Modeling“.

 

Another SSD concern was the need for a preemptive list of jargon in each article. As you might notice, one of the Seattle Privacy Coalition’s goals is to provide constructive feedback to the EFF from our experiences with our activist and journalist students.

 

Graciously, one of our students enjoyed sharing the words of every acronym that we used to instruct with. It was a healthy reminder that our students need a lot of breakdown, which in effect, leads to a lot of segues. Seattle Privacy Coalition needs to include more subtle structure into our curriculum plans so not to spend as much time on segues. Segues created a condition where it became too easy for non-technologists to get lost. We regularly asked if everyone were comfortable with the previously discussed topic so people could easily ask questions.

 

Other over-arching concepts included the differences between active and passive surveillance, and also the differences between transport encryption and encrypted storage. The Seattle Privacy Coalition needs to add a section disusing a basic concept of encryption in our upcoming workshops.

 

The majority of our students were iOS and OS X users, which was slightly unfortunate since we don’t have any Apple users among the active Seattle Privacy Coalition volunteers. Creating power users out of Apple users was a clear challenge in our workshop, but we were able to educate on a few important self-defense tactics and operations.

 

Regardless of the lack of Apple iOS and OS X experience, we were able to cover many outstanding encryption tools. We only instructed on the use of open source tools made by The Guardian Project, Open Whisper Systems, and The Tor Project . We limited our tools training to these developers because of their commitment to human rights, attention to usability, and their verifiable skills at employing strong encryption through careful software development.

 

We covered topics like “data linkability” and applied its concept throughout the workshop. We covered notions of “metadata” and applied its concept throughout the workshop. We covered search and seizure laws and rights. We covered Washington state audio and video recording laws and responsibilities. We made sure every Android and iOS user had storage encryption enabled. We also discussed OTR advantages in light of the above chosen software tools.

 

We spent a lot of time talking about cell phone communication encryption as a matter of risk deterrence. We did this by covering basic cellular network infrastructure and various vulnerabilities. Discussing SS7 vulnerabilities, baseband processor vulnerabilities, and IMSI-catcher threat detection was a primary knowledge area that we think is critically important for activists.

 

With only five hours before everyone was completely wiped, we barely had enough time to cover the proper use of Tor. Regrettably, Tor was talked about only as a solution. We did not comprehensively discuss threats and vulnerabilities. We did not have enough time to include any hands-on exercises which we think is ideal for showing activists how easy it is to install and use the above mentioned software tools. We also were not able to talk about HTTPS or PKI, which would have been useful after a basic intro to encryption.

 

Lastly, while we were able to discuss contact management for cell phones, we did not discuss contact management for personal computers. In fact, while 5 hours is a lot of time, we had no time for talking about personal computer hardening aside from a few brief mentions of Tails Linux. The only attendees to raise their hands as being Linux users were those from the Seattle Privacy Coalition.

 

In Retrospect

Everyone walked away having learned many important things, and with a some healthy paranoia. Seattle Privacy Coalition volunteers learned a lot too, particularly about the nature of this specific underrepresented community in Seattle. The Seattle City Council is advised by the Citizens Technology and telecommunications Advisory Board (CTTAB), and in a couple months, CTTAB will be hosting a privacy symposium specifically looking at underrepresented communities that are often hurt by data mismanagement or surveillance. Activists are not only underrepresented, they’re often abused and misunderstood by capitalists, politicians, and journalists. We hope that these surveillance self-defense workshops will help our fellow residents, our city, and our perception of privacy moving forward.

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