Put Away Your Tinfoil Hat: Security in Context

Are you an organizer or activist interested in protecting your data and communications from corporations and the government? At the upcoming AMC, the "Watch This! Surveillance, Security, and Organizing" track is about recognizing and growing the capacity within our movements to challenge the surveillance state. In this blogpost, the organizers of the Watch This! track outline a series of questions for thinking about security in a holistic manner—versus only thinking of it as a set of tools we use to keep movements safe.

Join us at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit to continue the conversation about safety and security in our movements!

Put Away Your Tinfoil Hat: Security in Context

By Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Emi Kane, and Bex Hurwitz, Coordinators of the AMC2014 Watch This! Surveillance, Security, and Organizing Track

For organizers working to secure and defend the rights of this nation's poorest and most marginalized communities, the surveillance state is nothing new. Even before programs like COINTELPRO, abolitionists had to work covertly due to surveillance by Southern slave owners.

Today’s instruments of surveillance are far more complex than those of the past. Yet, current-day social, economic, and racial justice organizers can learn from the holistic response to these issues, evident in the writings of 19th century abolitionists and others from before and around that time, such as Frederick Douglass who suggested that security be a guiding principle and a value of organizers, not merely a tool.

Learning from these approaches, we have developed a framework for understanding security issues within a larger context and broader historical arc of political organizing. We refer to this framework as "contextual security."

A contextual approach differs from the dominant "right to privacy" framework for addressing security concerns in that it starts with understanding social movement needs and histories rather than going straight to the digital tools and techniques for defending against surveillance.

Many social justice activists and organizers do not find the tools-focused, privacy rights framework of "a right to privacy" helpful. It’s hard to start with the language of rights or technological solutions when state and corporate actors regularly and systematically upend the privacy of our communities. For many of us, the conversation of surveillance must begin by addressing social power and problems of social control.

Over the course of the last three years leading panels and strategy sessions at the Allied Media Conference, and informed by the work of the Tactical Tech Collective—we've learned that conversations about safety and security are most successful when they are grounded in discussion about what we envision, know, and practice.

The following set of questions offer a starting point for grassroots organizers interested in applying a contextual security framework to their organizing.

Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are you fighting for? Who are you fighting for? What does safety mean to you and your community?
  • What are you concerned about with respect to your security – physical, digital, emotional/psychosocial/other?
  • With whom do you work or interact in your organizing?

Next, think about your communication security needs and strengths:

  • What are you already doing to protect yourself from surveillance?
  • Which kinds of information or communications need to be kept only between you and your networks or allies in order for you to reach your movement's goals?
  • What kinds of information does your network need to collect and store to reach your movement's goal?
  • Have you thought about which laws (if any) are in place that affect how you interact, communicate, congregate/assemble with others? What are they?
  • Which tools of communication are you most reliant on? And which communication networks are you most reliant on? How much control do you have over those tools or networks?
  • How much do the owners/creators of those tools/networks have over you?
  • Are the tools or networks you use widely adopted by the people or communities you are fighting for?
  • How likely are your allies or networks to adopt new digital tools? Are there others you can turn to for support when adopting new digital tools?
  • Can you and your allies or networks afford the tools you rely on or tools you will need to adopt?

You can engage in this activity as a mapping exercise, in which each member of your group writes a single answer to each question on a sticky note. Then place your answers underneath each question on a wall or butcher paper.

For many of the questions, you can categorize answers along a continuum. So, for example, when answering the question about reliance, label one end of the continuum "total group or personal control" (e.g., you, your organization or collective created and owns the communications tool you use). Label the other end of the continuum "no group or personal control."

Consider also the dimension of time. For many of the questions above, ask yourself: "How does my answer change over time, if we’re talking about today, the length of our campaign, this year, the next decade, or an entire generation?"

While by no means the only grounded model for digital security, our contextual security approach attempts to address a gap recognized by researchers and practitioners alike: most digital security training is ineffective. By asking organizers these questions before they start learning about a new tool like GPG or Chatsecure or Tor, we hope organizers and activists will begin to understand that software solutions are only one piece of a larger puzzle in securing political organizers and social movements. Digital security depends on a holistic diagnosis of our communication practices, risks, and opportunities. The activity shared above is one of many, and we hope it can be helpful in your work.

Let us know what you think and join with us to continue the conversation in the Watch This! track of the 16th annual Allied Media Conference.

Browse the sessions of the Watch This! track.

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