Picture someone opening an encrypted email – a string of meaningless characters – then typing in a lengthy passphrase and seeing the nonsense resolve itself into sentences. Imagine this person also uses an operating system, Tails, that encrypts and hides everything they do. When they search the internet, they use a special browser called Tor, which camouflages their IP address. If you want to call them, you have to use an encrypted messaging app like Signal, and read out a one-time password that pops up on your screen to verify who you are.
Who is this person? Maybe you’re imagining Edward Snowden, or the awkward, hoodie-wearing hacker protagonist of TV show Mr Robot. You probably think they’re paranoid. Or a spy. Or doing something seriously illegal. But collectives are springing up to spread the word that everyone should be learning to encrypt. And against a rising tide of nationalism and inequality, marginalised groups should be first in line.
Donald Trump, President of the United States, has made the battle lines clear. He’s not a fan of Muslims or undocumented families, civil rights activists, people who speak out for women’s and LGBT+ rights or the environment, journalists, or opposition of any kind.
In the UK, meanwhile, a law passed in November allows deeper surveillance of citizens than any Western democracy has ever seen – and it’s not just spies and cops that can search through your browser history. Thanks to the Investigatory Powers Act (or ‘Snoopers’ Charter’), the online activities of everyone in Britain can now be accessed by all kinds of state authorities – including tax, work and health departments, ambulance services, the Police Complaints Commission and the Home Office, which is responsible for deportations.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense to protect yourself, to spread the word to those who need it most, and to learn from those who saw this coming.
Matt Mitchell, a former New York Times data journalist, has been a socially engaged hacker since he was a kid. In his teens, he’d read computer magazines cover to cover, teaching himself coding at school and figuring out how to play video games without paying for them – despite the fact that his parents, immigrants from Trinidad and Grenada, couldn’t afford a computer at home.
He was working as a developer at CNN during the summer of 2013 when two world-changing events happened: first, the NSA contractor Edward Snowden let us all know that our private emails and phone calls might not be as private as we’d thought. And second, George Zimmerman, the man who shot dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked back from a Florida 7-Eleven carrying Skittles and iced tea, was acquitted, sparking outrage that kindled the Black Lives Matter network as well as a wider civil rights movement.
For Matt, who lives in Harlem – the mostly black neighbourhood in uptown Manhattan – surveillance was never an abstract idea. “You can’t buy a bag of chips in my neighbourhood without being surveilled,” he says. Walk a few blocks south to whiter areas, though, and you’ll notice that the ubiquitous corner-store cameras and “creepy panopticon, prison-tower-looking things on our street corners” magically disappear. “It’s like there’s this invisible wall around your community and when you get back into it, you’re being spied on constantly.”
Add this, he says, to a racially biased police force and sentencing system, as well as the fact that data pulled from seized phones can be presented as evidence, and it’s clear that “protecting your data is a real way of protecting yourself ”.
The following summer, in 2014, Matt rented out a community space just off Harlem’s main strip, printed up flyers, spread the word in places like hair salons and barbershops, and spent three hours teaching the diverse crowd who’d shown up how to encrypt their digital lives. Crypto Harlem was born – joining a global grassroots network of ‘CryptoParties’ started in 2012 to encourage the use of encryption tools. Matt is now supported by a Ford-Mozilla fellowship to work full-time training activists, journalists and over-policed groups in digital security, as well as conducting research on the topic. He’s also embedded with the civil rights organisation Color of Change and puts on popular Crypto Harlem clinics every month.
Outside his neighbourhood, Matt meets plenty of people who say they have no need for encryption, because they have nothing to hide. “But that doesn’t happen at my CryptoParties. People are like, ‘We already know that people see us as a suspicious group and we don’t like it. If there’s something I can do to protect myself, or just look normal and get treated regularly, I’ll do it… Tell me what to install.’”
If anyone needs convincing, Matt shares the story of 19-year-old Harlem local Jelani Henry, who was arrested in 2013 for double attempted murder based on evidence relating to his phone contacts and social media feed. He spent a year and a half in the hellish Rikers Island jail waiting for a trial that never took place: the charges were thrown out and he was sent home. “That’s 19 months of terror,” Matt says. “All because the technology told them that, because of the people you’re connected to [online], you’re not on the up-and-up.”
CryptoParties are an obvious rallying point for the privacy movement. They are free and accessible to all, localised enough that you can feel personally involved, and give people tools that they can then pass on to others.
David Huerta, who runs New York’s main CryptoParty chapter, is looking at putting on an event in Washington, D.C. this year for staffers of politicians who are outspoken against Trump. “I’d like to see all the people that will be fighting this administration better protected than they are now,” he says. He mentions not only prominent Democrats, but also people like Republican Senator John McCain, who has called for an independent investigation into Russian hacking. “In that case,” David says, “not only are they exposing themselves to a loose cannon President but also, you know, Russia.”
And David isn’t alone in wanting to widen the circle. Deep Lab is an international collective of artists, theorists, hackers, engineers and researchers loosely defined around the ideas of “cyberfeminism” and an interest in surveillance, privacy and other aspects of online culture. They talk regularly online, share news about their research and projects, create art together, run occasional crypto workshops for girls of colour, and get together in person at residencies every year or two; the next one is in the UK later this year. The group was set up by New York- and Austria- based artist Addie Wagenknecht, inspired by the Snowden and Bradley Manning leaks, as well as the question, “How do you bring the power back to the ‘others’?”
“The others”, as she sees it, encompasses gay and trans communities, people of colour and women. Addie wants to help educate these groups about surveillance outside the typical hacker scene. “So many of the conferences I go to are typically made up of 95 to 98 per cent white dudes who are straight, and who don’t see these underlying issues that I think a lot of other people in society do,” she says, “like the 50 per cent of society that are women.” When she’s not creating or exhibiting her art, working on Deep Lab projects, or engaged in family life, she holds online “office hours” to help marginalised groups encrypt their gadgets.
Deep Lab sparks wide-ranging conversations about concepts like anonymity, censorship and the way that online socialising is shaping us. It’s not as tightly focused as Crypto Harlem on practical tools for self-protection, but there are similarities. Both groups aim to shine a spotlight on crypto experts who don’t conform to the hacker stereotype, to pool knowledge, and to encourage engagement that can ripple outwards. “So often we need a point of reference as to what’s possible,” Addie says. “So if you don’t see women who are using encryption, or using Signal, [you’ll think], ‘Oh, that’s what the guys in the black hoodies do. That’s what all the Mr Robot guys use. But what do the normal people use?”
One of Deep Lab’s members is Maral Pourkazemi, a designer specialising in data visualisation (and founder of a lesbian techno club night in Hackney Wick) who grew up in Germany and lives in London. She has previously created complex infographics on Iranian internet censorship, and plastered a university building with copies of a CIA torture report with Addie during a residency in Pittsburgh.
“There needs to be more of these initiatives,” says Maral. “I feel detached from political parties, but with small groups, you can identify with them and grow with them. It’s more approachable. No one’s trusting political parties any more, so the power of the individual becomes more important.”
Silkie Carlo, who runs CryptoParties in London, is proof that small groups like hers can work to have a bigger impact. She also works for Liberty, an organisation that plans to take the UK government to court in 2017 over its new powers to hack and collect data on large groups of people without individual warrants.
By getting together in classrooms and community spaces, or just on Slack channels and message boards, people can help each other stay positive and awake in the face of a “surveillance machinery” that, in Silkie’s words, “can feel like an inescapable net.”
“We don’t want people to lose hope,” she adds. “2017 is a year that we need to be stronger than ever.”
Matt echoes this sentiment. To stay on top of things, he takes time to meditate each day. “It’s like Rocky, the movie,” he says, “You can’t show up to a fight thinking you’re going to lose. You have to believe that even though the government gets misguided, we’re going to steer things back.”
Awareness is everything – given that governments and tech companies have no incentive to educate people on the data they want to gather – and this can start small. “If you know just a little bit, and it’s correct,” Matt says, “you know enough to help someone you care about. Like, ‘Put a sticker over your camera lens on your laptop and try this app out.’ It’s really easy. Learn one thing, and tell a friend that thing.”
He compares the work to AIDS awareness advocacy in the 1980s: scientists and doctors were crucial in ending that epidemic, but so were “people who just know how to put a condom on a banana, getting out there talking to people who trusted them.”
But the most important step, says Matt, is learning to take new threats seriously. He detects echoes of Brexit in the way that the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ became law in the UK. “It could have been nipped in the bud on day one if enough people were on top of it. Brexit [and] the Trump Presidency could have been nipped in the bud. If only people said, ‘Hey, let’s learn about this, let’s see where it’s coming from, let’s have an answer to this that makes sense. Otherwise it’s going to snowball out of control.’”
Those opposed to the changes didn’t take the threat seriously enough until it was too late. For Matt, that fact alone should ring out like a warning shot for anyone prepared to listen.
“[People were] like, ‘Yeah, the government’s going to snoop into all our stuff, that’s totally ridiculous, right?’ And then it passes.” He laughs. “So to prevent that from happening [again] we have to be educated and we have to be vigilant, and we have to realise that, no, anything is possible. Look at who’s President of the United States.”