Citizen Lab Summer Institute on Monitoring Internet Openness and Rights, Day 1

July 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

The first day of CLSI 2014 started with Ron Diebert talking about the state of the field and the attempt currently under way to build an inter-disciplinary research community around monitoring Internet openness and rights. Fenwick McKelvey has also put up a reading list of papers mentioned at CLSI 2014.

The opening panel looked at Network Measurement and Information Controls, and was facilitated by Meredith Whittaker of Google Research. Phillipa Gill gave an outline of the ICLAB project [slides]. This project is trying to develop better automation techniques for measuring censorship which would allow a better understanding of not just what is blocked, but also how it’s being blocked, who’s blocking it, and which circumvention methods might be most effective. At the moment the tool is still running in pre-alpha, and having some successes with block page detection: early findings will come out in IMC later this year.

Nick Feamster from Georgia Tech then discussed another project which is attempting to build a more nuanced picture of Web filtering than the data currently available. He argued that censorship takes many forms, not just blocking: performance degradation, personalisation, and other tactics. This means that measuring Web filtering is harder than it appears, and what is required is, “Widespread, continuous measurements of a large number of censored sites.” Issues with this include the problem of distributing client software to look for censorship, which is potentially done through the browser. This is possible, but leads to ethical issues.

Jeffrey Knockel of the University of New Mexico talked about moving, ‘Toward Measuring Censorship Everywhere All the Time’ [slides]. The method discussed here was to use side channels, which allows measuring IP censorship off-path without running any software on the server or the client or anywhere in between. This can be done completely in Layer 3, which has enough side channels.  Almost 10% of IPv4 addresses respond to large pings, higher in some countries – this allows for more vantage points. [I have no idea what this means.]

Finally, Collin Anderson talked about studying information controls inside Iran. He discussed the use of mass-scale continuous data collection as a way to show themes of political discourse within the country. This requires content-specific, context-specific knowledge. For example, when Iraq started to clamp down on the Internet, Islamist content was specifically blocked, as well as an odd assortment of pornographic site. Anderson argued that this research will be more effective when people avoid references to “censorship”, which can be divisive, and instead talk about “interference” and “information controls”. (This was also a theme that came up in the Q&A as Meredith discussed the need to avoid ‘inflammatory activist tinge’ to language, project titles, and so on, because this can discourage use and endanger anyone accessing services).

The Q&A for this last session focused quite a bit on ethics issues, and on the problems with managing these given the limitations of current ethics research boards and the challenges involved in the research itself. For example, while university ethics boards tend to prioritise ‘informed consent’, this can create problems for users of circumvention tools as it removes plausible deniability. Similarly, the idea of using anonymity to protect activists may not always match activists’ experience: some participants want their real names used because they feel this offers the protection of international visibility. Gill argued that part of what we need is better models of risk: frameworks for predicting how censors are likely to react to measurement.

The next session of the date focused on Mobile Security and Privacy. David Lie of University of Toronto began with a discussion of ‘Pscout: Analyzing the Android Permission Specification’. This tool uses two-factor attestation as a way to improve data security. This combines two-factor authentication with malware protection across both laptops and mobiles/authentication tokens. (I have some concern about the focus here on ‘trusted computing’, which takes devices further out of their users’ control).

Jakub Dalek of Citizen Lab talked next about the Asia Chats project, which focuses on chat apps that are popular outside the western context. In this case, Line, Firechat, and WeChat. Line implements blocking for users registered with a Chinese number, although there are a number of ways to circumvent this blocking. Firechat, which has been popular in Iraq, is promoted as being anonymous, but the actual content of messages is very poorly protected. Finally, Dalek noted that there was a lot of Chinese government interest in regulating WeChat.

Jason Q. Ng, also Citizen Lab, shared his work on the same project, this time focusing on Weixin. One of the interesting trends here is the emergence of messages which place the blame on other users for blocked content, such as: “This content has been reported by multiple people, the related content is unable to be shown”. Looking at the specific kinds of content blocked suggest that even if ‘users’ are blocking this material, there’s some link with the Chinese government (or at least with government interests). More work is needed, perhaps, which looks at these kinds of indirect forms of information control.

Finally, Bendert Zevenbergen of the Oxford Internet Institute outlined the Ethical Privacy Guidelines for Mobile Connectivity Measures, the outcome of a workshop held with ten lawyers and ten technical experts. He also raised the potential helpfulness of a taxonomy of Internet Measurement ethics issues, and invited people to begin collaborating in the creation of a draft document.

The next session focused on Transparency and Accountability in Corporations and Government. Chris Prince of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada talked about the annual report in Canada on the use of electronic surveillance which has been made available since 1974. A paper analysing this data, Big Brother’s Shadow, was published in 2013, and suggested important shifts in targets and sites of surveillance.

Jon Penney of the Berkman Center, Citizen Lab, and Oxford Internet Institute, outlined three major challenges for transparency reporting in ‘Corporate Transparency: the US experience’. These include the need for more companies to be willing to share transparency reports with more and better data (including standardised data); better presentation and communication of transparency reports which balance advocacy and research and provide contextualisation; and more work on the legal and regulatory space impacting transparency reporting.

Nathalie Marechal of USC Annenberg talked about the ‘Ranking Digital Rights‘ project, which is developing and testing criteria for particular privacy-protections from companies (such as whether they allow users to remain anonymous), working within an international human rights framework. This work has the potential to be useful not only for civil society actors advocating for better corporate behaviour, but also for corporations lobbying for policy change. The initial phase of the project is looking at geographically-based case studies to better understand themes across different locations, and during this phase there’s an interest in understanding how to assess multinational corporations operating across multiple regulatory contexts, including those which are acquired by other companies. Marechal and other researchers on the project are seeking feedback on the work so far.

Chris Parsons of Citizen Lab spoke on the need for better data about online privacy and related issues in the Canadian context: at the moment, we’re aware that, “an eye is monitoring Canadan communications”, but don’t have full details. This work began by sending surveys to leading Canadian companies in order to get more information an data retention. Results mainly indicated a generalised refusal to engage in any depth with the questions. The work has also been crowdsourcing ‘right of access’ information through an open request tool [try it out, if you're Canadian!]. Unlike the surveys, these requests are legally binding, and through the data generated, they’re trying to figure out how long online data is stored, how it is processed, and who it is shared with. Collaborations with MP Charmaine Borg have also led to more information about how Canadian intelligence and police agencies are engaging in data surveillance. From this initial research, they’re now trying to use this data to develop a transparency template to more effectively map what still need to know.

In the final talk of the session, Matt Braithwaite of Google talked about work around Gmail to build a better understanding of increasing encryption of email in transit. Google also has useful data available on this, and their report on it received significant attention, which resulted in a spike in encryption of email.

The final panel for day one looked at Surveillance
Seth Hardy of Citizen Lab talked about ‘Targeted Threat Index: Characterizing and Quantifying Politically Motivated Malware’, This is a way of measuring the combination of social targeting (for example, the use of specific language and internal group knowledge to convince activists to open attachments) and technical sophistication to build a better understanding of how politically-motivated malware is developing. Research from this project will be presented at USENIX Security on August 21st, 2014.

Bill Marczak (UC Berkeley and Citizen Lab) and John Scott-Railton (UCLA and Citizen Lab), talking about the growth of state sponsored hacking. They described the growth of mercenaries, companies selling tools to governments (such as FinFly). Some of the challenges for this research include the lack of people available to contact targeted groups and find out about the issues they might be having, and that targeted users may not even realised they’re under attack in some cases. There is some information available on malware that users are accessing, but metadata on this is limited: researchers get a file name, country of submitter, and time submitted, which doesn’t give information about the context in which malware was accessed.

Ashkan Soltani spoke on how technological advances enable bulk surveillance. One of the important differences between traditional surveillance techniques and new methods is the cost. For example, Soltani estimates that for the FBI to tail someone, it’s about $50/hr by foot, $105/hour by car, and covert auto pursuit with five cars is about $275/hour. Mobile tracking might work out to between 4c and $5/hour. This means that the FBI has been able to use mobile tracking to watch 3,000 people at a time, which would be totally impossible otherwise. This is vital when we think about how different forms of surveillance are (or aren’t) regulated.

Nicholas Weaver is based at the International Computer Science Institute, and emphasising that this gives him more freedom to look at NSA-relevant areas because he has a freedom to look at leaks that US government employees are prohibited from accessing. He advises us not to trust any Tim Horton’s near any government buildings. He gave a brief overview of NSA surveillance, arguing that it’s not particularly sophisticated and opens up a lot of vulnerabilities. Weaver said that anyone with a knowledge of the kinds of surveillance that the US’s allies (such as France and Israel) are engaging in will find them more worrying than actions of the US’s opponents (eg. Russia and China).

Cynthia Wong discussed work by Internet Research and Human Rights Watch on documenting the harms of surveillance. One of the organisation’s case studies has focused on Ethiopia, which is interesting because of the network of informants available, and the extreme hostility to human rights documentation and research on the part of the Ethiopian government. Surveillance in Ethiopia is complex but not necessarily sophisticated, often relying on strategies like beating people up and demanding their Facebook passwords. However, the state also buys surveillance tools from foreign companies, and documenting the harms of surveillance may help in bringing action against both companies and Ethiopia itself. The organisation also has a new report out which looks at surveillance in the US, where it’s harder to document both surveillance and resultant harms: this report highlights the chilling effects of surveillance on lawyers and journalists.

Thinking about research ethics

July 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I didn’t get much (well, any) training in the ethics of research during my formal studies, apart from the documents that came along with my first ethics application. Over the years, I’ve been thinking more about what constitutes ethical research involving activists, and how I can use my relatively-privileged position within academia. The work I’ve been doing with Tim Highfield on the Mapping Movements project has also raised new challenges as we’ve tried to think about how to use social media material ethically (and rigorously). Over recent years, I’ve also come across more critiques by feminists and people of colour of the ways in which their lives, analyses, and work has been appropriated by academia and the media.

In response to this, I’ve tried to put together a rough public document about the ethical guidelines for my research. This is intended as a public statement of accountability, and I hope to continue updating it in response to further thinking and self-education.

#SMSociety14: Greek independent media and the antifascist movement

July 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ll be presenting the first analysis from the next case study of the Mapping Movements project that Tim Highfield and I have been working on at the Social Media & Society conference in September: the abstract is included here and we welcome comments, particularly from those involved in the Greek antifascist and independent media movements.

I must particularly acknowledge the assistance provided to this project by Maria Sidiropoulou, who has provided invaluable research support.

Title: Greek independent media and the antifascist movement

Background:

As social and political movements around the world attempt to deal with complex challenges, social media plays a key role in movement-building, organising events and campaigns, and communicating movement messages. This research focuses on the role of social media in facilitating the restructuring and growth of the antifascist movement in Athens following the 2010 protests in Syntagma Square. As Makrygianni and Tsavdaroglou (2011) note, Greek urban space has played a significant role in shaping protest during and after the junta, with the Exarcheia neighbourhood being a central base for activist organising. After Syntagma, activists moved from Exarcheia into neighbourhoods throughout Athens, establishing communities which form the basis of antifascist organising and which remain connected through both commercial and independent social media platforms.

Objective: This paper aims to demonstrate the complexity of links between social media and offline communities, including the ways in which each are mutually constitutive, and to provide a deep and nuanced analysis of how a particular community uses social media. Using the Greek case study, it addresses broader questions about the limitations and affordances of different social media platforms in building social movements (see also Gerbaudo, 2012; Juris, 2012).

Methods: This work uses a grounded mixed-methods approach to investigate the ways in which the particular histories and geographies of Athens affect activists’ use of social media, and the ways in which activists are reshaping networking technologies in order to build systems which are more supportive of activist interests (as opposed to the interests of corporations or governments). The research combines quantitative analysis of Twitter accounts associated with the Athens antifascist movement; analysis of issue-oriented hyperlink networks of independent media platforms such as the Indymedia forums and neighbourhood anti-fascist blogs (see also Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Marres & Rogers, 2005); and 34 in-depth semi-structured interviews with activists, carried out in April and May 2013. The combination of quantitative and qualitative methods allows us to avoid some of the biases present in social movement research which focuses purely on online data (see Tufekci, 2014).

Results: This research highlights the interrelationship between social media and the physical configuration of protest, demonstrating how supposedly ‘placeless’ media is built on, and supports, physical communities of resistance. For example, activists’ decisions to use particular social media platforms are strongly influenced by the offline communities which they are a part of, while these platforms also serve a vital role in sustaining and mobilising those communities. This research also shows some of the tensions involved in activists’ choices to eschew the use of commercial social media platforms, including the risk of growing insularity within movements. More generally, this work provides important lessons about the ways in which activists are responding to the crises caused by neoliberalism and building new possibilities for community solidarity.

Conclusions: The combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis allows us to build a nuanced picture of social media use in a particular activist community, demonstrating the value of this research method. It also highlights important trends frequently overlooked in related research, such as strategic non-use or covert use of social media.

References:

Bennett, W. L., & Segerberg, A. (2013). The Logic of Connective Action: Digital media and the personalization of contentious politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets: Social media and contemporary activism. London: Pluto Press.

Juris, J. S. (2012). Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist, 39(2), 259–279. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2012.01362.x

Makrygianni, V., & Tsavdaroglou, H. (2011). Urban planning and revolt: a spatial analysis of the December 2008 uprising in Athens. In A. Vradis & D. Dalakoglou (Eds.), Revolt and crisis in Greece: between a present yet to pass and a future still to come (pp. 29 – 57). Oakland, Baltimore, Edinburgh, London & Athens: AK Press and Occupied London.

Marres, N., & Rogers, R. (2005). Recipe for tracing the fate of issues and their publics on the web. In B. Latour & P. Weibel (Eds.), Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (pp. 922–935). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tufekci, Z. (2014). Big Questions for Social Media Big Data: Representativeness, Validity and Other Methodological Pitfalls. In ICWSM ’14: Proceedings of the 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. Ann Arbor, MI. http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1403/1403.7400.pdf

Preempting Dissent

July 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

Cover of 'Preempting Dissent' book

The Preempting Dissent documentary builds on the book of the same name: you might also want to read ‘Infrastructure Critical’ for more on the Toronto G20.

Today I went to an advance screening and Q&A on Preempting Dissent, about the application of the ‘Miami model’ of policing to the G20 protests in Toronto.

The documentary started with an overview of changes to policing tactics in North America, looking at how Giuliani’s ‘broken window’ theory got applied to protest policing: no loss of control should be allowed, lest it get out of hand. In particular, following the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle police have begun to treat events which might attract protest as national security events. The US PATRIOT act exacerbated this tendency, with a further shutting-down of the space for protest.

The ‘Miami model’ includes cooperation between police and federal agencies; extensive surveillance in the lead-up to protests, including raids on meeting spaces, preemptive arrests and searches; the (mis)use of ‘less than lethal‘ weapons during protests; and the development of ‘free speech zones’ which separate protesters from events and contain them.

Preempting Dissent points out that a Canadian government investigation has acknowledged that protesters had no way to know in advance that the police were enacting previous wartime legislation to, in effect, bring in martial law during the G20. Even protesters who took care to educate themselves about the law surrounding protests ‘had no way of knowing they were walking into a trap’.

A line of riot police with helmets and shields

Image by Joshua Scott

The documentary ends by talking about the need to challenge the ‘security logic’ that underpins the Miami model of policing. In the Q&A session afterwards Greg Elmer talked about the need to move away from planned events which lead to protesters walking into a trap, suggesting that more mobile and fluid protest tactics are one way of responding to changes in policing. He also emphasised the need to respond to intimidation tactics which try to scare protesters off the streets.

One of the questions about the shift from surveillance to preemption brought up an important point: that ‘surveillance’ often isn’t about information-gathering. It’s simply another form of intimidation, a way of letting activists know that they’re being watched, and of undermining organisation. The discussion session brought up quite a few other interesting issues: the need to consider race (and particularly racism) when thinking about the dynamics of protest policing; the ethics of showing images of protesters in the current surveillance environment; and the ethics of making sensitive footage available under a creative commons license which might allow for problematic uses.

There was also some useful sharing of resources: I liked the suggestion that protesters carry a self-addressed envelope with them so that if necessary they can mail their SD cards back to themselves to prevent police wiping phones used to document violence, and someone from the What World Productions team mentioned their documentary on police violence against homeless, poor, and other marginalised groups in Toronto.

I highly recommend watching Preempting Dissent and reading the companion book for more detail, as well as Infrastructure Critical.


 

Trigger warnings: there’s some quite intense footage here, including of protesters being kettled, tazed, pepper-sprayed, and violently arrested.

How private funding influences GM research

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

The private sector has driven GM research – but in whose interests? International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

I have a new article up on The Conversation arguing that it’s important to think about the economic context in which GM crops are developed. While GM crops are often promoted as being the solution to world hunger, most of the research on GM crops is driven by private industry, or ‘public-private partnerships’ between industry and research institutions. This has important impacts on the kinds of research being done, and should invite scepticism about claims that GM crops will help support a more sustainable and equitable food system.

Of course, the article length is quite limited. For a longer discussion of these issues, order my forthcoming book: Global Justice and the Politics of Information: the Struggle Over Knowledge.

Anarchist perspectives on feminism: further reading

June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Several people requested more reading to accompany my talk on anarchist perspectives on feminism.

This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list: the goal is just to provide a few starting points for reading, most of which can be found online.

For explanations of anarchism and anarchafeminism:

  • Emma Goldman’s Anarchism: what it really stands for in her collection of essays provides a good overview. Goldman’s writing style is not for everyone, being quite passionate (which I think was a political choice for her), but I enjoy it.
  • The opening chapters of Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey’s African Anarchism give a concise and readable overview of anarchism and its relationship to socialism.
  • History and actuality of anarcha-feminism: lessons from Spain, by Marta Iniguez de Heredia, provides a readable overview of anarchafeminism.
  • bell hooks’ work is not explicitly anarchist or about anarchism as a theory, but her work is an excellent perspective on anarchafeminist ideas. I’d recommend Feminism is for everybody and Feminist theory: from margins to centre as useful starting-points. The first of these, and much of her other work, can be found online.

Lateral perspectives:

As I explained in the workshop, much of my learning and thinking about anarchism hasn’t come through political theory, but rather through fiction. Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time was quite influential for me (which makes me all the more disappointed to read that she signed on to a 2013 transphobic open letter), and I read a lot of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work as explorations of how we might end up with an anarchist society, especially the Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy (although he can be quite technocratic at times). Reading the lives of anarchist women is interesting. Emma Goldman’s Living my Life is a fascinating read, and hopefully provides an antidote to putting Goldman on a pedestal.

Other places to look:

  • Project Gutenberg has quite a few works on anarchism which might be interesting, particularly for those who want to get a more historical perspective.
  • The Anarchist Library has a section on feminism, as well as a broad selection of other writings.
  • Libcom has a lot of posts and articles on feminism, including quite a few from non-Western perspectives. Be warned that your mileage may vary here, as some of the discussion posts are anti-feminist.

These are, of course, just a starting-point, and limited by my own experiences. I’m trying to do more to explore perspectives that are more marginalised and hopefully will have continue to develop this list over time.

Why I’m ending my short experiment with Gittip, or: why we can’t have nice things, part 2,039

June 20, 2014 § 11 Comments

I love doing teaching and research, but I also want to be doing more to engage and build communities outside of academia. Recently, I decided to start experimenting with Gittip as a way to support that. Gittip “is a way to give small weekly cash gifts to people you love and are inspired by. Gifts are weekly. The intention is for people to depend on money received through Gittip in order to pay their bills, and bills are recurring.” I like the idea, and I liked that the ‘top receivers’ shown on the front page included several activists working on diversity issues, which suggested that it wasn’t just a tool for programmers to use, and that it’s possible to make a decent (if far from extravagant) income doing public outreach and community-building work.

Then, someone on Hacker News criticised the site for supporting people who ‘yell on Twitter and demonize men’, saying the site had become ‘a joke dominated by professional victims’. Sadly, this is not unexpected. The level of daily vitriol directed at women who actively address sexism in tech culture (and in other spaces) is astounding. What was unfortunately is that Chad Whitacre, founder of Gittip, responded this comment by thanking the poster for his feedback.

When people called Whitacre out on this, he responded by saying that he was talking about the part of the comment that referred to the how ‘leaderboards’ were displayed: he was agreeing that perhaps the front page on Gittip shouldn’t focus so heavily on those who give and receive the most funds. I was hopeful that he’d follow this up with a simple and unequivocal statement along the lines of, “Of course we want diversity activists using Gittip! This is an excellent use for the tool and it’s important that we support them.”

Instead, Whitacre’s responses have both tacitly and explicitly supported the ongoing harassment that many of Gittip’s (previous) top users, including Shanley, Ashe Dryden, and Nóirín Plunkett face. Tacitly, by thanking misogynists for their feedback and not speaking up against misogyny, Whitacre supports a culture of harassment that pushes women out of geek communities:

gittippattingHNontheback

Explicitly, Whitacre has contributed to the ongoing harassment that women working on diversity issues in geek communities face by writing a blog post explicitly attacking Shanley, particularly for the tone of her criticisms of him. I am not going to link to the blog post. And just in case anyone wants to say that Whitacre would have responded better if only someone had explained it to him more politely, it’s clear that other people have been approaching these discussions in a gentler way, and haven’t managed to shift Whitacre’s approach. [Edit: also see Julie Pagano's email to Whitacre.]

In response to this, many of Gittip’s users have been leaving or are going to leave, including Shanley, Ashe Dryden, Steve Klabnik, and probably many others that I’ve missed [Edit: including Skud]. For many, this comes at a huge cost: people like Ashe Dryden have spent a long time building up their support base on Gittip, and get a significant proportion of their income from the tool. This isn’t a decision taken lightly.

This is what builds homogenous communities. When privileged people fail to stand up for marginalised groups within their communities, those groups eventually understand that they’re not welcome and won’t be supported and leave. Initial shifts towards diversity are rapidly undone.

I’ve shut down my account, too. I don’t want to work to build support through a platform where key communities members are not only unwilling to support their top users, but are also willing to actively attack them.

[Edit: there's now a page up about this on the Geek Feminism Wiki: Gittip crisis. I'm hoping that in coming days there'll also be resources compiled around alternatives to Gittip, and about how people can support people who've stopped using Gittip.]

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