Tag Archives: surveillance

A Good American

Surveillance, Self-Censorship and Social Justice

This week I took part in a panel discussion and Q&A following the screening of the film A Good American, which tells the story of individuals involved in the development of the ThinThread surveillance programme in the USA and how it was killed off by the NSA in favour of the more expensive, intrusive and ineffective Trailblazer programme. The film was incredibly interesting and educational, and I’d seriously recommend giving it a watch if you can. As someone relatively new to issues around mass surveillance, I thought the film provided a really easy to follow and engaging history and insight into the technology of why and how mass surveillance functions, and the implications for people’s privacy.

We were also honoured to be joined by Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders, as well as Bill Binney, a former NSA Technical Director, and Kirk Wiebe, a former NSA Senior Analyst. Bill and Kirk featured heavily in the film itself and were two of the key individuals behind the ThinThread programme. Being able to ask them questions and hear their views on the UK and the implications of the Investigatory Powers Act was a real privilege, albeit in a very worrying context.

I was asked to talk about the implications of mass surveillance on freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the role of libraries and librarians in helping people protect their privacy. For once, I wrote a rough script! I’ve posted it below.

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David McMenemy and I are currently working with Nik and Scottish PEN on a study of Scottish writers’ conceptions of surveillance and its potential impact on freedom of expression. This is a follow-up study to a survey conducted by American PEN and PEN International in other countries. PEN American Center (2013) says:

We know—historically, from writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Bloc, and contemporaneously from writers, thinkers, and artists in China, Iran, and elsewhere—that aggressive surveillance regimes limit discourse and distort the flow of information and ideas. But what about the new democratic surveillance states?

PEN’s original study gave participants the chance to discuss their concerns around surveillance, and the significant themes included writers’ self-censorship and fear that their communications would bring harm to themselves, their friends, and their sources.

They found that writers are self-censoring their work and their online activity due to their fears that commenting on, researching, or writing about certain issues will cause them harm. For example, writers reported self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government.

The fear of surveillance—and doubt over the way in which the government intends to use the data it gathers — has prompted writers to change their behaviour in numerous ways that curtail their freedom of expression and restrict the free flow of information.

For example, significant numbers have:

  • Curtailed or avoided social media activities,
  • Deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations,
  • Avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic,
  • Refrained from conducting internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious,
  • Taken extra steps to disguise or cover their digital footprints, or
  • Declined opportunities to meet or speak to people who might be deemed security threats by the government.

We have replicated this study in the Scottish context, and an initial look at the results shows very similar findings. We are seeing that writers are following news stories about government surveillance efforts within the UK, are worried about current levels of government surveillance of Britons, and have concerns about corporate and government surveillance.

The behaviour being described by writers, about the steps they are taking to protect themselves from becoming victims of the surveillance state, in many cases takes the form of self-censorship. They are simply not engaging with areas of intellectual and public life that they otherwise would do.

Implications of self-censorship

One troubling aspect of self-censorship is that it is impossible to know what contributions to society are being lost because of it. PEN (2013) raises the important issue that “we will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution”. We know that many writers, academics and members of society more widely, are hesitant to communicate their thoughts because of rational concerns around surveillance.

This has implications not only for culture, but for social justice and human rights.

Social justice and human rights

From a social justice perspective, surveillance creates a panoptical environment in which people’s sense of being watched affects their everyday lives. People respond differently to these circumstances; some feeling more secure and safe, and others much less so. We simply do not know enough about the psychological impacts of living under highly surveilled circumstances to anticipate what impact it will have on people throughout the course of their lives. We do know that members of minority groups are more likely to be surveilled (Renderos 2016), thereby adding to the existing conditions of relative disadvantage and increased systemic violence and oppression. As Malkia Cyril states, “lawful democratic activism is being monitored illegally without a warrant” and encryption technologies offer vulnerable groups such as people of colour, immigrants, welfare recipients and political activists who challenge the status quo, the ability to more safely exercise their democratic rights (Renderos 2016).

Resistance

Avoiding mass surveillance is not a simple case of opting out of using certain resources. Even people using the most secure tools that offer protection against surveillance of content (what is being said) cannot protect themselves fully from being surveilled at the level of metadata (when/where/to whom it is being said – which in itself provides a lot of detail about what may have been said). Additionally, many people feel like they can’t avoid engaging with insecure means of communication that the majority of their networks and wider society are engaging with, if they want to avoid marginalisation. However, many people simply do not comprehend the extent of surveillance made possible by these technologies – they do not know the extent of the surveillance they are subject to. Whereas many of the participants in our self-censorship and surveillance survey described their awareness and the steps they have taken to increase their security, writers are largely a relatively privileged group. Members of society more widely do not have the benefits and knowledge that many of us do have.

I think we therefore need to teach the public about surveillance – both to help raise awareness of the fallacy that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” (Coustick-Deal 2015) and help people to resist it, through challenging policies and laws as well as equipping themselves with the skills and resources to protect their privacy. There is an increasing interest in this work from librarians who want to help their users protect their online security in terms of both corporate and state surveillance. Scottish PEN has been working with the US-based Library Freedom Project to develop a toolkit for libraries so they can advise users on the software and practices they can employ to protect themselves. Libraries and groups like the Open Rights Group and Radical Librarians Collective have held cryptoparties to help people with their ‘privacy checklists’ around encryption and other actions they can take.

We need to do more than this, however. As educators, librarians need to resist policies and interventions such as the Prevent initiative, which asks university and school staff to watch out for the ‘potential radicalisation’ of the students in their institutions. The Government has implemented training on how to spot ‘radical ideologies’ (including Islamic extremism and anti-capitalist agendas) and legally binds them to report these to the authorities who then have the right to question their friends and family, seize any and all academic work by the suspected student, and investigate other aspects of their public and private lives. For example, a student at Staffordshire University on their Terrorism, Crime and Global Security course was questioned by university security after being reported by library staff for being seen reading a book about terrorism, in the library. He subsequently withdrew from his course. This is one of many accounts of actions that Ali Milani (2016) describes as “creating and propagating a narrative of suspicion around an entire community”.

With the rise of the surveillance state, these events are going to become more common, and have more of an impact on people’s rights to education, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Even without the explicit removal of these rights, the oppressive systems of surveillance we are increasingly encountering will have extremely negative impacts on the universal rights of those who most need them.

References

Coustick-Deal, R. (2015). Responding to “Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear”. https://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2015/responding-to-nothing-to-hide-nothing-to-fear

Milani, A. (2016). Dear Owen Smith – Backing the Racist Prevent Strategy Won’t Win You This Election, It’ll Lose Labour Votes. Huffington Post Blog, 12th August 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ali-milani/owen-smith-prevent-strategy_b_11468406.html

PEN American Center (2013). Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor.  https://pen.org/sites/default/files/Chilling%20Effects_PEN%20American.pdf

Renderos, S. (2016). To the next POTUS: For communities of colour, encryption is a civil right. TechCrunch, 6th May 2016. https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/06/to-the-next-potus-for-communities-of-color-encryption-is-a-civil-right/?utm_content=bufferc64aa&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Tucker, I. Ellis, D. and Harper, D. (2016) Experiencing the ‘surveillance society’. The psychologist, 29, pp.682-685. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/september/experiencing-surveillance-society

[Image: Still from A Good American, Slingshot Films]

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Radical Librarians Collective (Part One)

Part One of a series of posts on the Radical Librarians’ Collective event that took place on 10th May 2014 at the London Action Resource Centre in Whitechapel, London.

This post discusses what RLC is, where it was held and what sessions happened. I’ll be writing more posts about the sessions I attended soon!

What’s the Radical Librarians Collective?

It’s both an online and physical space, where people who are starting off from the general point of view that there are some problems in the way that libraries and information services of various kinds function in society, can discuss those issues. It covers all sorts – how we catalogue resources, how we do outreach, how library management is structured, how education is viewed in society, how publicly-funded research is often not accessible…

“Radical Librarians Collective aims to offer a space to challenge, to provoke, to improve and develop the communications between like-minded radicals, to galvanise our collective solidarity against the marketisation of libraries and the removal of our agency to our working worlds and beyond.”

Last year the first RLC event was held in Bradford, and this time round it was held in London. They’ve taken the form of ‘unconferences’, where there’s a general structure to the day but it’s far less formal and planned. I had the pleasure of being involved in the organising and running of the RLC event this time round, and can very much recommend getting involved in whatever capacity you can if this is the kind of thing you’re interested in. I found both events especially positive for lots of reasons.

Attendees were starting on the same page despite the wide variety of industry and work backgrounds they came from and it wasn’t necessary to spend a long time getting past the fundamentals, like the radical notion that access to information is a good thing, or that claiming libraries are democratic needs to be backed up in their actions. At other events I’ve often felt like there’s too much of a leap between the normative and uncritical point the event takes off from to get to the critical and challenging stuff, and it’s great to be able to miss the middle bit and head straight to the meaty stuff.

The question of “what do we do about it?” was very much in focus throughout, and people were happy to share practical examples and suggestions about how they can improve situations. So many ideas were being thrown around and the day ended with a plenary session where we shared what things we can do as individuals and groups to improve the things we want to improve. Mega-positive. Even discussions where I was able to share a negative feeling about something and have someone else not be able to fix it, but say “yeah that’s a thing and it sucks, it’s not just you”, I found really helped me feel less isolated and far more resilient. It sounds obvious but I think I’d forgotten that there’s such power in finding out you’re not alone. However, that certainly wasn’t the main content of the day and productivity far outweighed any sense of hopelessness.

There was a real emphasis on the non-hierarchical nature of the events, and it very much felt like although attendees definitely varied in levels of experience and different backgrounds, everyone’s input was respected and valued. I’m aware that different people have different levels of comfort about participating in discussions, but of all the events I’ve been to, this felt like one where there was a very non-judgemental environment and there was plenty of space for anyone to say pretty much whatever they liked (within the safe spaces policy) without fear of reproach. I was on both sides of discussions that started with things like “oh god I was so intimidated by you but you’re like, a normal person” and “I’m so sorry if I offended you, I was just disagreeing” and it was a complete breath of fresh air to be able to actually disagree with people and them be okay with it and stand up for what they thought and work out where there were differences and commonalities to work from and to just feel comfortable with a bunch of totally awesome people. I really hope that was everyone else’s experience and if not I’d really like to know how I can be part of making things better next time round if anyone did feel uncomfortable. (I harbour fears of coming across as a complete jerk, rightly or wrongly, and being anxious about not being told if I’m a jerk is the suckiest thing.)

All of the things I’ve talked about above are issues that RLC have been very aware of since the beginning and served as part of the motivation for getting started in the first place, so I’m really glad that it seems to have happened in action.

What’s LARC?

The London Action Resource Centre (LARC) is a collectively run building providing space and resources for people and groups working on self-organised, non-hierarchical projects for radical social change. The resources of the building include:

  • a main hall area with chairs and couches, a small kitchenette with tea making facilities, used for meetings or small gatherings
  • an office space with chairs, desks and internet facilities
  • a rooftop garden
  • a radical reference library that overlooks the main hall area
  • a banner-making and tool space in the basement

I was so impressed with this space. The people involved in LARC were so helpful and generous during the planning process and it served our needs really well. I think RLC-folk in London intend to use the space again, and I think that’s a really great idea. The only problem I can think of would be that it’s not an especially accessible building, so that would need to be taken into consideration for any future events. However, it was easy to get to, the wifi held up, there was plenty of space and the rooms were great. For fear of tooting a horn I shouldn’t be, I think the organisers did a grand job of overcoming some of the obstacles that needed sorting before and on the day (chairs! cups! coffee!)

a photo collage from radliblon

What happened on the day?

The structure of the day went a bit like this:

Registration and pitches (10-10:25)

Turn up, get your name ticked off, make a name badge, have a cuppa, listen to some session pitches and maybe pitch a session yourself. Some people had added their suggested sessions to the wiki beforehand so we had an idea about how many people wanted to ‘run’ or facilitate a session, but some people (like me!) just suggested something on the day. There was a real emphasis on the fact that if you were interested in a topic, you should pitch it and see if anyone else was interested in talking about it, and preparation was not an issue (in fact, positively discouraged!)

For the sessions, we used three rooms and three sessions ran at the same time. People were welcome to wander in and out of them as they fancied, but I think for the most part people stuck around.

First round of sessions (10:30-11:25)

  • Neoliberal Education: In the context of an ’employer-led’ education system, and amidst increasing marketisation and penetration of neo-conservative ideology, what can the college or school library do to promote free-thinking and wider reading? Where is the dividing line between promoting open-mindedness and pushing your own beliefs, and are there any professional risks to going ‘off-message’ in a college library service?
  • Censorship: Is it okay for librarians to promote the signing of a petition to ban The Sun from libraries? Spoilers: no – but why and why do some of them think it is? What can we do about it? How can we prevent censorship in general? (I pitched this and will be writing about it later)
  • Libraries as a feminist issue: A discussion about inequality within and without LIS structures. Or, indeed, possible solutions/opportunities for change.

Second round of sessions (11:30-12:25)

  • Public Service Mutuals: The coalition government wants to see public services ‘spun out’ into staff-led mutuals and co-ops as part of their vision for ‘open public services’. York Libraries and Archives have already gone down this route with Birmingham Libraries following closely behind. The implications are that public libraries will have to become more business-like, how does this fit with our ethos? Do SocEnts, trusts and co-operative councils pose the same threats? Is this part of a genuine desire to maintain strong public services, empower workers/users/communities and improve service quality or an ideologically driven desire to shrink the state and cut public spending?
  • Information as Commodity: challenges and implications for libraries and information workers. Using Marx’s analysis of money-commodities cycle in Capital vol. 1 as a starting point.
  • Radicalising the Professional Routes: (Ian won’t mind me saying that the pitch didn’t really reflect the reality of the discussion so I’ll describe what was discussed!) Problems with professional qualifications, vocational vs. theoretical focus and benefits/drawbacks, preparation for the workplace, opportunities for discussion, employer support, how to fix the problems (I went to this session and will be writing about it later)

Lunch! (12:30 – 1:25)

A delicious vegan spread catered by Shambhu’s. I have to say, one of the most valuable things I learned on the day was that cucumber and fresh coriander are a heavenly combination.

After lunch we had a second round of pitching, because we’d deliberately left some space in the afternoon for more sessions that might come out of discussions in the morning.

Third round of sessions (1:30 – 2:25)

  • Critical Theory in LIS: Should employers be training employees and academic courses be encouraging those undertaking LIS studies to be producing and developing critically-founded knowledge? Libraries have a steeped history in social politics and the neutrality that emanates from the contemporary sphere appears to continue a wider narrative of passivity from individuals that have lost agency in the political domain: Is the often assumed objective, neutral position of the profession is a flawed limitation, and is there a lack of critical foundation within the field of LIS? Has this contributed to a depoliticisation (or political apathy) across the field? Without critically aware staff, how can the library and information professions be said to be informing, enhancing, assisting, teaching or training information skills to their patrons? Can we locate and provide relevant information and sources of information without critically evaluating at subjective and intra-subjective levels? (I was involved in this session and will be writing about it later)
  • Surveillance: Discussion about the abuse of digital assets, governments and third parties collecting data and the importance of knowing our digital rights.
  • What is a ‘Professional’?: Discussing issues and problems with the divisions created between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ staff. What does ‘professional’ even mean?

Fourth round of sessions (2:30 – 3:25)

  • Libraries and Youth: Discussion about how insights from youth work can help us get youths using libraries and more. Do youths need to be using libraries? What does effective outreach look like?
  • How do we put these discussions into practice in the workplace and how can we deal with problems in the workplace?
  • How can we do things as citizens and get more people involved? The little and big things we can do to try to make a difference.
Plenary (3:30-4:30)

Round-up of the key things that had come out of the sessions, working out what to do next. The organisers of this event would very much like to just be able to attend the next one, and really don’t want to create the sense that it’s a small group of ‘usual’ organisers who are in charge of anything. This belongs to everyone and it’s someone else’s go to do it next! It’d also be great to get smaller, more regular little meet-ups going on a regional basis, and the @RadicalLibs twitter account can help put people in touch with others in their area. There’s going to be a delegate list where people can add their regional and contact details on the wiki. If anyone needs help with using a wiki, @RadicalLibs can help there too.

And then we had a lovely time having some drinks and playing some music and talking about skate videos of the 1990s.

 There’ll be plenty more written about what happened on the day (not just by me!) so do let us know if you’ve written something so we can put a link to it on the wiki.