AoIR2016: Activism

Digital Unmasking: the Ethical Issue of Crowd Surveillance
Mathias Klang, University of Massachusetts Boston

[This talk opened, rather jarringly, with a quotation from a guy who recently left ToR after multiple accusations of long-term predatory behaviour. I admit that this unsettled me substantially and probably didn’t help with my note-taking.]

Is there a right to protest anonymously? Anti-masking laws suggest otherwise. This is, in most jurisdictions, no legal right to anonymity, but there are some cases in which we’ve developed a commitment to anonymity, for example, in voting. Anonymity in voting shouldn’t be taken for granted: it was characterised as ‘cowardly’ in US history. We have this idea that democracy should be open.

If every device has politics, what is the politics of a device that captures mobile data? This is a technology that silences uncomfortable discourse.

Collateral Visibility
Bryce Newell, Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society

licenseSome key questions about body cameras and automatic license plate recognition systems (ALPR). Newell cited several examples of the tracking of police behaviour, and videotaping of police killings. Police talk about feeling victimised, or about a ‘witch-hunt’ against them. In interviews around the filming of police violence, themes around context and control. This is also leading to attempts by police to try to limit access to footage.

In other jurisdictions, police are making data more available instead, for example, putting bodycam footage online. However, this leads to its own issues, including ‘collateral visibility’, as citizens interacting with police have their interactions shared online.

Data privacy in commercial uses of municipal location data
Meg Young, University of Washington

This research asks about how data privacy is enacted by Seattle’s municipal government. Data collection drew on interviews, focus groups, and other ethnographic research. In Seattle, the state freedom of information law is grounded in a strong presumption of citizen’s right to know.

The Acyclica company collects data (MAC addresses), aggregates this data, and uses it to track travel patterns within the city. If the raw data was a public record, it would be requestable. Since it’s outsourced, it’s not. But analysis of the contract suggests that the data can be resold. Data collecting for this was rationalised in a variety of ways. For example, one employee said that people were ‘opting-in’ by having their phones’ wifi turned on in public space.

Sandra Braman provided some closing comments. One key question: what would you do (as an individual activist and as a community), assuming all of this is true, to be as politically effective as possible? We have to recognise that no matter what we do, it will be unpredictable. Activists can use big data (and other) analysis as well as researchers. [And somewhere in there discussion shifted to another skeevy JA from the tech activist world and I unfortunately ran entirely out of energy].

The violence we don’t see

Occupy Wall Street was forcibly evicted last night: as I watched my Twitter feed explode with news about the police action, I saw reports of violence from police (including at least one being taken away in an ambulance) and media being kept out of the area. I saw expressions of surprise, dismay, and outrage at the police violence, at the force used to evict non-violent protesters.

Heavily armoured police with rifles moving in against an occupation
Police action against Chapel Hill Occupation, by Katelyn Ferral

The system that we live in is built on violence. The violence we’re seeing as various Occupations are evicted is different because people have organised, and dissent is visible and centralised. This means that violence is exerted overtly and against people who might not otherwise experience it, as well as those who are subject to it every day. As people who are white, who are middle-class, join the protests, they become subject to similar policing to that marginalised groups experience on a daily basis.

We often think of moments such as these as being unusual, aberrations. Moments when a mayor or politician makes the wrong decision, or a few bad apples in the police force misbehave, or (depending on where you’re getting your news) protesters push things too far by engaging in violence or overstepping the bounds of civil disobedience.

Police in riot gear with rifles at Occupy Denver
Police at Occupy Denver

What happened at Occupy Wall Street wasn’t an aberration. That should be clear from the police actions at Occupy Oakland, at Chapel Hill, at Occupy Denver, at Occupy Cal, at Occupy Melbourne, at countless other occupations. And this isn’t only a recent phenomena. I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which records, over and over, people organising against desperate conditions and marching on or camping at Wall Street and other symbolic or actual centers of power. And, over and over, of these protests being broken up with violence and/or dissolved through cooption. The same history of protest and violent repression exists in countries throughout the world.

However, despite the regularity with which dissent emerges and is crushed or dissipated, moments such as these are in some sense unusual. Usually, the violence that sustains the system is invisible (at least to those who are relatively privileged), pushed to the edges of society. This doesn’t mean it’s not there.

We follow laws in part because of the threat of violence: direct violence in the form of police actions like those at Occupy, but also the violence of deprivation of liberty, the threat of the violence from marginalised groups (non-whites, young people, poor people) that will supposedly result if we don’t support harsh policing. The Australian political system, which I have seen so many people say is better than that in the US and not worth protesting against, is built on a history of genocide which ran up to the 1970s. Our two mainstream political parties use rhetoric around asylum seekers to try to gain support, contributing to Australian xenophobia and racism in the process.

Tents and a sign reading 'capitalism isn't working'
Capitalism Isn't working, photo courtesy of Andy Roberts

The cheap access to material goods that buys the consent of the working class in Australia and other developed nations is also built on violence. Slavery continues to be used around the world, including in the US. We can afford to eat meat regularly because of the cruelty of factory farming. Those attempting to organise against sweatshop conditions are killed or intimidated in many places. Minerals in our shiny gadgets help to fuel vicious conflicts that we may only ever hear about in passing.

The violence used to break up Occupations is striking because it is visible, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I want to end with something cheery. I want to end by saying: here’s what you can do. Here’s how you can fix it. You can, of course, take plenty of actions against the violence I’ve talked about here. You can take part in events like the National Day of Action Against Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. You can call your representative and tell them to start treating asylum seekers like human beings. You can call the offices of local councils when police move in to evict occupations. You can try to buy fair trade, reuse and recycle, join your union, pressure companies to sign on to codes of conduct.

Protesters standing with a sign that reads 'another world is possible'
Make Ready Your Dreams, photo courtesy of Eric Wagner

More than this, you can try to imagine another world, a world that isn’t built on violence in the way this one is. And you can try to create that world now the way many of the occupiers are trying to, the way people have tried to over and over again: by taking action against discrimination, by feeding each other, by helping those who don’t get heard to have their voice heard, by setting up child care and free libraries and workshops and loving each other.

Don’t be surprised when the violence becomes visible, but don’t give in to it either.