Protecting Protest with Privacy for Social Movements

Surveillance threatens citizen activism


October 21, 2019

By Glencora Borradaile, Associate Professor and Associate School Head, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Glencora Borradaile

Free expression is essential to democracy. The freedom to engage in meaningful protest, civil disobedience and direct action allows us to challenge oppressive social structures and bring about liberating social change. While the global surveillance programs disclosed, for example, by Edward Snowden in 2013 presented a massive challenge to any individual or organization working to change the status quo, there is hope in the ability to hide private correspondence from prying eyes through encryption. To gain perspective on the significance of this technology, it helps to step back in time.

In 1976, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reprimanded the United States government for adopting “tactics of totalitarian regimes” through the FBI’s COINTELPRO program — tactics that resemble kindergarten versions of modern-day global surveillance and interference methods. COINTELPRO disrupted many Civil Rights-era social movements, labeling those engaged in civil disobedience (including Martin Luther King Jr.) as members of hate groups. COINTELPRO tactics of suppression capitalized on information from old-school spying to harass and persecute social-movement activists. 

These tactics are still in use today by governments and corporations. However, they no longer depend on information from costly and risky human infiltrators and spies. Social-movement adversaries can now access troves of data to mount a campaign of suppression. Surveillance-driven counterintelligence programs targeting activists are in widespread use today, most notoriously deployed against those working to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Cambridge Analytica scandal made clear the dangers of detailed knowledge of users’ social media lives to the democratic process itself.

While it may seem hopeless to achieve privacy in a state of global surveillance, we have more options than we did in 2013. Then, fewer than 30% of webpages were loaded with the https protocol, which keeps information private from third parties; now over 80% of webpages are. In 2013, one of the only ways to communicate privately online was through a software tool known as PGP email encryption, which is notoriously difficult to adopt. Now, there are dozens of secure messaging apps that provide private, encrypted communications by default and services for private collaborative editing, cloud storage and audio and video calls. Tools like Signal, Keybase and Cryptpad guarantee that the information you share through them is end-to-end encrypted: only available to you and the people you choose to communicate with, not to the provider of the service or an eavesdropping third party.

Through a recently funded National Science Foundation grant, OSU sociologist Kelsy Kretschmer and I are working to understand how grassroots social movements adopt digital security measures. This work grew out of a partnership with the Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center to provide digital security support to environmental and social justice activists. We have already found that key factors to adopting encrypted communications are understanding of the risks of surveillance and the motivation to evade it. Online, people often face a loss of convenience as they adopt privacy-preserving tools and must commit to their continued use in the face of addictive (and often privacy-degrading) tools being constantly deployed by mainstream, profit-driven tech companies. 

While there may always be a security-convenience divide, developers and users can work together to create space for truly free expression.

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