OpSec for activists

This group shows activists of color how to protect themselves from digital threats.

The Fighters is a series that spotlights people on the front lines of shifting power. These are the activists and agitators who are fighting to change the world for the better.

As the recent Facebook data debacle shows, nothing you post online is exactly private. For activists whose work relies on digital communication, the possibility of a data breach is especially dangerous — and constantly-evolving technologies make it even easier for law enforcement agencies or bad actors to infiltrate and destabilize digital organizing efforts. A recent paper presented at the International Conference on Computer Vision Workshops revealed protesters may soon have to worry about being identified by facial recognition software. Last year, the NYPD accessed Black Lives Matter organizers’ text messages in order to access information about upcoming protests and other plans. Other activists groups have had their members doxxed and harassed online by right-wing extremists.

In response, a group of organizers at the Center for Media Justice and May First/PeopleLink put together a digital self-defense toolkit called Defend Our Movements. Their goal is to help activists, especially activists of color, protect their data, encrypt their communications, and learn to be safer online so they can take powerful action offline. We caught up with Malkia Cyril, founder and executive director of the group, to talk about organizing, digital privacy, and what comes next for Defend Our Movements. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Where did the idea for Defend Our Movements come from and how was it put together?

We got together with May First/People Link, which is a technology group within our national network, the Media Action Grassroots Network. We came up with this idea because the environment we’re in right now under Trump is particularly devastating to the democratic rights of people of color. We wanted to make a site that specifically responded to the security needs of racial justice advocates across races, but specifically activists of color.

One of the things that we care very much about is high-tech criminalization: the use of technology in the digital age to criminalize — to profile, to police, and to punish — communities of color. Examples include the use of electronic monitors to shift the location but not the conditions of incarceration; expanding police technologies like body-worn cameras, drones, license plate readers, and facial recognition software; and federal surveillance programs, like the FBI’s [recent] expansion of a program called the Black Identity Extremists Program. At the same time, ICE is using technology to track down undocumented people in the same way slaves were once tracked: Arresting them, breaking down their families, deporting them.

One of the things we can do is we can provide security training. We worked with groups like EqualityLab, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and others to deliver security training to activists. We also wanted to provide folks with some resources, some tools, and some vehicles to get their questions answered in an ongoing way. When you have surveillance that is this persistent and pervasive, you also have to have security and safety that is persistent and pervasive.

It’s not about trying to achieve some sort of puritanical safety; we know that risk exists no matter what.
Malkia Cyril, founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice

The surveillance of activists has gone back decades, but with the kinds of technology that we have now, it’s absolutely more pervasive. Do you see a new urgency, given not only who’s in the White House, but also the power technology companies like Facebook have?

The issue is this: We don’t own these technologies. If it is profitable to maintain safety and security, then that’s what will happen. If it is not profitable to maintain the safety and security of users, then that won’t happen. The level of consolidation of these platforms — the fact that Net Neutrality has been repealed, the fact that broadband privacy has been repealed — makes using technological platforms in the 21st century, under this administration in particular, even more risky than it would ordinarily be.

Being online, just like being offline — you’re never completely safe. It’s not about trying to achieve some sort of puritanical safety; we know that risk exists no matter what. But now, under Trump, we have a situation where the most advanced technological surveillance architecture the world has ever seen was handed over to a white supremacist: someone who is extraordinarily anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, [and] anti-gay. We know that now, more than ever, social movements that want to continue to function — and want to continue to be able to practice true democracy — need to protect themselves from this surveillance architecture.

Last year, news broke that the NYPD had obtained all of these Black Lives Matter activists’ text messages. When you’re organizing, people communicate in whatever ways are easiest and most effective for them, but so many of those methods are vulnerable to being obtained by police.

I’m the child of a Black Panther. My mom was a Black Panther in New York. The surveillance of the Black Panther Party, of the civil rights activists and leaders of the time, really shaped her understanding of what the government is capable of doing to people who live here in the United States in order to maintain control over social movements.

I grew up in that environment and with that knowledge. That is what fuels me today, in terms of ensuring that the people who are currently taking brave and bold stances on the front lines of human rights in the 21st century [are doing so] with all the tools, technology, and techniques at their disposal to stay safe.

I see that Defend Our Movements has a help desk. What are the most common questions you get?

We just released this. We’ve had it up for about a month, and I can tell you what we’ve learned so far.

People have been hacked, and they want to figure out what to do about it. A lot of these organizations that are working on social justice issues and racial justice issues are pretty small. Many of them don’t have on-site IT people; they don’t have the kind of expertise in-house that would enable them to respond to that kind of attack. Another issue is being doxxed. Lots of our immigrant brothers and sisters are being doxxed. Our Muslim rights activist kin are being doxxed.

People hit us up to try to figure out what they can do about that stuff. It’s harder to do after the fact, but being able to track the information that’s already out there, and working with services to scrub that information off the web, is something we can help people do.

Another thing is being harassed and attacked on social media. It doesn’t have to be some kind of hacker — just a regular person harassing and attacking you on social media because of your activism. How do you handle that?

Folks want to know how they can encrypt their email and phone conversations. When they’re making plans on Facebook Messenger, is that end-to-end encrypted? What happens if they’re on WhatsApp, and it’s end-to-end encrypted, but it’s owned by Facebook, which isn’t end-to-end encrypted?

There’s a lot of questions. Some of them we can’t answer. Luckily, we have a whole team of experts, professionals, and technologists who are grounded in social movements and can answer the questions when we don’t know the answer.

What’s next for Defend Our Movements?

A couple of things. I want to start moving some of this stuff into video formats — short educational videos that people can always come back to. I can tell you today to use Signal, and you’ll be like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, no doubt." And two weeks later, you’ll have forgotten what I said. I feel like more activists will be able to use a short video than a website with a million different pieces of information. I think breaking each one of these things down and creating a multimedia experience will be useful to a lot of folks.

Beyond the multimedia approach, I think we’ll continue to do on-site community trainings; we want to be face-to-face with folks who need to get safer. We want to help move an analysis around safety and security that helps people understand that safety is an illusion; even the term "security" tends to be more about securing wealth and whiteness than anything else. In this environment, and given what we’re trying to accomplish with our work in general, we’re talking about how can we create enough safety so that we can take the risks we need to win.

Update: This piece has been updated to reflect the Center for Media Justice's collaboration with May First/People Link.