The Blot: U.S. Government Flip-Flops On Civil Liberties, Privacy

Matthew Keys, writing for The Blot Magazine:

Through its criticism of Apple and Google, the government has shown its hand: There is no interest in striking a balance between civil liberties and national security if such balance interferes with the government’s ability to collect any data it wants for any reason at any time. And unless a company does something that runs contrary to the government’s mission of “collecting it all,” the topic is not up for discussion.

Succinct summation of the current landscape. The sooner you grok that the US government only nominally cares about civil liberties, the sooner we can all go home.

This summer, at HOPEX in NYC, I gave a short talk that was informally titled “The Next Lawyers, the Next Jake Appelbaums,” referring to the computer security researcher who’s known for being the American face on Wikileaks and for contributing extensively to the TOR Project. I was talking about the growth of student activism in response to the NSA leaks, about how the students of today are simultaneously the lawyers and the TOR activists of tomorrow. In part, I was referencing Julian Assange’s quote that there are two approaches to dealing with mass state surveillance: the laws of physics; and the laws of man, the idea that crypto tools will stymy mass surveillance while we wait for the legal system to come around.

Except that when you have Eric Holder invoking hysteria around pedophiles and terrorists, you get the impression that we’re going to be waiting a while.

Related reading: Apple’s efforts strengthen personal privacy.

#GamerGate highlights industry misogyny

My column this week for the Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper.

#Bendghazi. #StopTheGOP. #CDNPoli. It is tough to keep up with Twitter’s always changing trends, but some hashtags are worth paying attention to. Lately, users may have noticed a new hashtag — #GamerGate — popping up on their screens. Given its title, it is fair to think that the story behind the hashtag affects only video gamers. #GamerGate is a movement aimed at addressing the gender inequality in the video game industry, though it is sometimes presented as nothing more than a question of fairness in online video game reviews. In reality, however, this is not the case. The hashtag’s short history is rooted in misogyny and online harassment. Any alternative explanations for the controversy surrounding the hashtag are a subversion of the industry’s sexism problem. Gamers and non-gamers alike have a responsibility to address the issue at hand.

The #GamerGate campaign began in earnest on the heels of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” YouTube series. She funded the clips through a 2012 Kickstarter campaign that attracted some attention, though not as much as the videos later would. In her seven videos, she calmly lays out the case that video gaming exists in an inherently misogynistic realm, one in which female characters either need to be saved or killed. If gaming were to diversify, she argued, all players would benefit. Response from the gaming community was swift. Sarkeesian received graphic rape and death threats, her home address was posted online and she was ultimately forced to flee. Last week, she canceled an appearance at Utah State University after someone threatened “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she went ahead with the lecture. Harassment of women who stick their head above the parapet in traditionally male-dominated spheres is nothing new, especially for Sarkeesian. In 2012, a Twitter user created an online game in which players could virtually punch Sarkeesian in the face, leaving her avatar bloodied and bruised.

Some gamers are quick to point out that they do not condone the threats and abuse that women who speak out against sexism in the gaming industry are receiving. They do believe that video game journalism is to blame for the industry’s sexism, however, referencing a recent incident with controversial designer Zoe Quinn. Quinn’s ex-boyfriend posted blog posts in August claiming that the reason Quinn’s game was successful was because she slept with several video game critics. Gamers were enraged at the apparent journalistic dishonesty, and subsequently attacked Quinn for being a woman, among other things. Like Sarkeesian, Quinn was forced to flee.

Women are coming forward to speak against this abuse at the expense of their personal safety. Gamers attempting to shift the discussion about the causes of #GamerGate away from misogyny and toward the ethics of video game reviews must stop implicitly condoning the abuse women are subject to. Trying to steer the conversation away from women within the industry fearing for their lives and to journalistic integrity draws attention away from the real issues at hand.

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.

Digital Rights Q&A

10615509_1552831074947201_6669117917728540060_n(Excuse the incorrect date.)

Quick update before class: Student Net Alliance held a policy call with EFF’s April Glaser earlier this week, discussing tools and strategies relevant to students and activists who are looking to advocate for change. April’s been an enormous help to us at SNA and has covered previous campaigns we’ve run.

I’ll announce another SNA upcoming event in a little bit, but one of the things I’ll do over the weekend is start putting together an informal activist’s toolkit — stuff that came up on the call and stuff that’s been useful to me and my friends over the last few months.

Upstate

“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
—8:42pm, September 22, 2010.

Two weeks ago, I traveled upstate with a bunch of volunteers and employees of NYU’s LGBTQ center for a weekend. We crashed in a YMCA lodge and got to spend time away from the city, other commitments, and cell signal. I’ve been working with these folks for about 6 weeks now, doing trainings and running events about equality on campus. Upstate, we got to discuss those trainings and what we felt the role of campus diversity groups should be.

It was also an opportunity to spend time away from everything, and to think about the circumstances that had led us down a life-path that had wound up with us standing on the edge of a lake in upstate New York on an LGBTQ trip.

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Across the board, this year has involved me getting more involved with the things I always cared about — I was always interested and invested in equality, digital freedoms, and sexual assault prevention. Now, I get to work with the LGBTQ center, the Student Net Alliance (where I’m lucky enough to be a board-member), and the New School in NYC, where I’m one of 6 or 7 volunteers helping to develop and present a 3-hour sexual assault prevention workshop aimed at college freshmen. As I wrote way back in the spring, I felt bad being what I saw as the stereotypical college student, spending his days working on whatever social causes catch his eye:

I often worry that I’m only interested in advocacy because I’m a freshman at college and these are the years when you’re most likely to be “edgy” and “counter-cultural.”

I think I was unnecessarily hard on myself when I wrote that, not least because these are very much the years you’re supposed to try new things and dip your ten toes in ten different pools.

When I’m standing up in front of a group of 40 students and faculty, talking about LGBTQ issues and trying to impart some sense of good ally-ship, you only get a vague sense of where everyone’s coming from. You could be presenting to someone who grew up with two moms and attending Pride parades around the country, or you could be talking to a freshmen who grew up somewhere where her family hated her for who she was. She might be very religious and think she’s going to hell, and it’s your job, at the top of that room, to assure her that there’s nothing wrong with her. You have provide a loving and accepting community at New York University, especially for those who didn’t get one at home.

When we were going upstate this weekend, we crossed the George Washington Bridge leaving Manhattan. My NYC geography is still patchy in places, and I haven’t spent much time in the area. I only know the bridge because, in 2010, an 18-year-old Rutgers college student called Tyler Clementi threw himself off it, falling to his death in the Hudson River below. I was in Minnesota for a time when that happened, and it was part of a string of suicides among LGBTQ youth. We were all familiar with names like Raymond Chase, Ryan Halligan, Asher Brown, and Seth Walsh — people bullied for being LGBTQ+ or even just being perceived to be queer. They were bullied and pushed to suicide.

I thought of Clementi as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, and I thought hard about why I had taken a job with NYU’s LGBTQ center. I took it because of Tyler Clementi. I took it because this happened in 2010 in a city that’s supposedly known as one of the most accepting places on earth. I took it because as a volunteer at the center I come into contact with a ton of freshmen I’d never have gotten to meet otherwise. I took it because I inhabit a space in the world and I want to improve it, in however small a way. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.

Source Protection in the Information Age

SPI had a lot of fun teaching journalists and students about PGP e-mail encryption at Columbia’s journalism school yesterday. I was giving workshops as part of a larger event on journalistic source protection in the information age. I was there as an an individual and not as a board-member of the Student Net Alliance, but I can’t imagine they disagreed with much of what I have to say.

Big leaks like the Pentagon Papers and the Snowden disclosures are in the minority. Most stories require a significant amount of gumshoe reporting and don’t involve your source going into hiding after the big reveal. That said, journalists should have a baseline knowledge of computers and their limitations since more and more journalism happens digitally — emails replacing phone calls, MS Word replacing the typewriter, etc.

And so a technologist, I feel a responsibility to teach people who didn’t grow up with computers about privacy tools — even if it’s something as seemingly basic as laptop hard-drive encryption. Plus, even if journalists never need e-mail encryption, there’s no reason to not have it as an option. I’m happy to give up my Saturday to teach people about this stuff because I feel strongly that they should know about this stuff.

I was particularly happy to be teaching this stuff by sitting in groups of 4 or 5 with people in front of their laptops. It’s easy and tempting to just give theoretical talks about why it’s important to communicate securely, but that’s no substitute to being able to take someone and, 20 minutes later, have them able to send an encrypted e-mail. You definitely can’t teach someone everything in that time, but somebody with PGP on their laptop, who has their public key online and knows how to find and add other people’s, is in a much stronger position than before. Plus, I helped them dip their toes in the water, and if they ever go for another 20 minute session with someone, it’ll be even better.

Glenn Greenwald, in his most recent book about his part in the Snowden affair, wrote about how difficult PGP is. His comments have been echoed by a lot of journalists I’ve met:

Using encryption software was something I had long intended to do. I had been writing for years about WikiLeaks, whistle-blowers, the hacktivist collective known as Anonymous, and related topics, and had also communicated from time to time with people inside the US national security establishment. Most of them are very concerned about the security of their communications and preventing unwanted monitoring. But the program is complicated, especially for someone who had very little skill in programming and computers, like me. So it was one of those things I had never gotten around to doing.
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

Between the event at Columbia and another event I helped run at NYU on Friday, I’ve barely had room to breath this week. The old college adage of “enough sleep, a social life, good grades — pick any two” definitely rings true.

The Future: Thoughts on the Journalism Industry

(A note: As a second-year journalism student, my opinions about the trade are at best under-informed and, at worst, completely wrong. This article is very much me flying a kite rather than me speaking from any sort of position of authority.)

When I tell people that I’m studying journalism, people sometimes raise an eyebrow in response. I don’t know if they think that robots and AI are going to replace journalists, or that, given the legions of bloggers online today, the role of a professional news-gatherer has been obsoleted.

I shouldn’t speak disparagingly of bloggers — I was one throughout my teens and still am. I think it’s an incredible medium and I don’t think society has fully appreciate the tectonic shift in communications that it represents. No longer is broadcasting the realm of the privileged few. When I started my introductory journalism class this semester, I half expected blogger-bashing to be a staple of the first few lectures. I knew a lot of journalists when I worked in Ireland, and most of them had little positive to say about editorless ‘keyboard warriors,’ who were disparaged for playing fast and loose with facts, and for being prone to sensationalism. Is this fair criticism? Or criticism unique to bloggers which could never be applied to journalists? I think not.

First, we have to ask what makes a journalist. We can probably agree that not everyone who writes is a journalist, so there must be some delineation. Can propagandists write for the New York Times? I doubt it, which means that our foundational definition probably includes some caveats regarding veracity and the absence of outright prejudices.

What interests me most is how journalism is being changed by social media and technology in general. Every few weeks, I run events for activists and journalists to learn more about our current set of privacy tools, and I make the point that source protection is much harder today than it was for Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. Today, if the government suspects a leak, it can tap the journalist’s computer in an attempt to discover their source. (And they do.)

So, if we have hundreds of thousands of blogs online, have they made journalism in the traditional sense irrelevant? If we’re all reporters, why have newspapers?

My guess is that modern reporting relies (and will continue to do so) on a symbiotic relationship between journalists and citizens. Not every blogger is a journalist, but reporters can’t ignore the fact that everyone now carries around a relatively high-quality network-enabled camera in their pockets. No longer is the public an abstract construct — a passive audience to be written at. Today, it has to be an integral part of the news-gathering process.

Kovach and Rosentiel wrote about this in “Elements of Journalism,” calling it something akin to collective intelligence:

Some advocates of the digital disruption believe that since no one controls information anymore, professional journalists in organized settings have become largely unnecessary or their role can be reduced to a narrower zone of activity far less focused than in the past on reporting and establishing facts. Since the information in the crowd is wider and deeper than whatever could be haphazardly collected by a few journalists, it will be closer to real truth anyway.

The basic argument seems to be that an increase in the information flow will obviate the need for professional news-gathering, but I think it’s arrant bollocks. The advent of CSPAN didn’t make Americans more politically aware, nor did it make Congress more efficient. As Jonathan Stray, writing for the Nieman Lab, said:

“[N]o one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means.”

This is the heart of the matter. The world of 2014 is one which is characterized by an overabundance of information, but that doesn’t mean we have the time or knowledge to sift through it all. In a world where 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, how does the best and the most important content rise to the top to be found? Today, a good journalist has to be less of a mindless fact-finder and more a contextualizer. If ten different sources are spewing out information, the journalist has to be able to quickly synthesize and package the information. Not only that, but news has to be engaging — here’s the information, she has to be able to say, and this is why it’s important. Journalism has lived and died by the 5 Ws (who, what, where, why, and when) for the last few centuries.

Today, it’s not the what that’s of paramount importance, it’s the what it means.

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.

Column: Apple’s efforts strengthen personal privacy

New York City,
October 7, 2014.

Here’s my weekly column for the Washington Square News, about Apple and Google’s recent moves to ensure users’ privacy. I was particularly interested in how the government reacted, but I also wanted to look at it from a computer security perspective — can we trust what Apple claims? We do have to take what they say on faith, but it’s still a laudable move towards increased privacy. I wrote it before the Washington Post‘s frankly shocking editorial on encryption “compromises,” which called for Apple and Google to use their “wizardry” to make a back-door for governments but not malicious hackers. Still waiting on official word in re: malicious governments.


On the heels of the celebrity nude photo leak, Apple released a full report on its commitment to user privacy. The statement, which followed the announcement of the new iOS 8 software, asserts that data on Apple devices is so secure that even company employees cannot access it. This means that personal information cannot be given to law enforcement, even with a valid warrant. The security changes were met with praise from civil liberties groups — and with good reason — but response has not been universally positive.

In a briefing, FBI director James Comey said he could not understand  why Apple would “allow people to place themselves beyond the law.” Other police officials were unequivocal in their condemnation. “Apple [iPhones] will become the phone of choice for the pedophile,” said John Escalante, head of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Detectives. The negative presumption is that, under the protection of Apple’s new, stringent regulations, users with bad intentions will turn to the iPhone to engage in illicit activities. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder agreed, saying companies like Apple could thwart law enforcement’s ability to do its job.

While criticisms of Apple’s hyper-security sound reasonable, it is important to remember that physical obstacles — doors, locks, walls — also prevent law enforcement from doing its job. One must ask if Apple has an obligation to make user info available if the police have a warrant, and whether the public can trust Apple’s new encryption if it is truly as strong as the company says.

Warrants are certainly part of effective policing, but granting law enforcement access to all the data on a device that stores so much personal information is bound to lead to abuses of power, including domestic phone data-mining, which was found unconstitutional in December 2013. Police officers tracked down criminals before smartphones existed — the restoration of personal privacy will not lead users to commit crimes any more than the invention of the deadbolt did.

In its privacy report, Apple makes bold claims. In the smartphone market, the tech giant uses superior consumer privacy as another way to beat Google, their main competitor. Additionally, iPhone software is closed-source and proprietary, so software engineers have no way of independently verifying the claims that Apple is making.

Ultimately, there is little stopping Apple from inserting a security vulnerability into a future software release. Apple is hoping that consumers will accept the image of a benevolent handler of personal data at face value, however, and they would be right to. Apple deserves praise for making consumer privacy a standard, especially because these changes come in the wake of government attempts to do away with any semblance of online privacy. 

Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.