A risk, a threat, a movement

A Letter

Eleanor Saitta writes about security tactics for real-world users. Her two use cases involve accessing Facebook over Tor—something that may seem at first glance to be ridiculous. Tor is designed to let users access the web anonymously, but of course, the moment you log into Facebook, Facebook knows exactly who you are. If you think of anonymity as binary—either you’re completely anonymous or not—then Facebook over Tor will seem useless. But, as Saitta lucidly demonstrates, anonymity is not binary, but rather an array of information, each bit of which can be independently negotiated. In Saitta’s stories (which, really, go read them), women at risk from abusive partners or governments benefit from being able to log into Facebook while hiding their IP address (and thus physical location). Likewise, chatting with Facebook contacts via Cryptocat protects the content of those messages, even from someone who has direct access to one’s Facebook account.

Among other lessons drawn from Saitta’s stories (as well as this story, from InfoSec Taylor Swift, which I’ve shared before) is that expecting users to adopt completely disparate software in order to be safe isn’t realistic. It’s like asking a woman who suffers from street harassment to just avoid the street. Likewise, blaming users for not knowing which tools or habits are safe puts the blame on the wrong party. As with most design problems, the blame rests on the designer, not the user.

Relatedly, Sarah Jeong writes in The Verge about Elonis v. United States, the first Supreme Court case to tackle online threats. As Jeong explains, the specifics of the case are pretty cut and dry: after splitting from his wife, Anthony Elonis took to making frequent and explicit threats against her, their children, and even an FBI agent who visited in response to complaints. He couched them in rap lyrics and made frequent references to free speech (perhaps in an effort to derail attempts to silence him). But, in what appears to be an eminently reasonable decision, a jury perceived his posts as threats to injure and convicted him. Elonis, of course, claims it was all a joke and he never had any intention to harm anyone. The case then looks at where and how to draw the line between a rant and a “true” threat—the former being protected, while the latter is a crime.

Jeong smartly connects Elonis to similar threats made against Anita Sarkeesian, Zoë Quinn, Adria Richards, Kathy Sierra, and others. This week also saw an update to Twitter’s tools for reporting harassment, which promise to make it both easier to report and to shift the burden of reporting from the victim to the community by incorporating bystander reports. It remains to be seen if these changes will have a real effect, or, if—like the recent arrangement with the nonprofit Women, Action, and the Media—it’s more of an effort to save face without fundamentally altering what kind of communication is unacceptable, or what kind of obligations Twitter must meet.

But while attention to online threats speaks to a cultural shift in how we think about behavior online, yet another failed indictment in yet another police killing shows we still have a long way to go to build power among marginalized communities. Mariame Kaba writes (personally and fiercely) on Prison Culture in the days leading up to the Wilson grand jury decision, connecting that one tragic moment with a larger movement to end oppressive policing. In particular, she calls for strategies to diminish the prison industrial complex while we work collectively toward more transformative change. Among her advice, she includes:

I start by never calling the cops. I hope more people will join me in that practice. It demands that we feel for the edge of our imaginations to stop relying on the police. It takes practice to do this. As such, we need popular education within our communities about the need to create alternatives to policing.

As a white woman in a big city, I’m practically the reason the police exist: when Giuliani (or insert other mayor here) talks about how he made New York safer, he means he made it safer for people like me, at the expense of many others. As much as I value my own safety, I have never been comfortable with the costs, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the costs are rising.

A few years back, I served on a grand jury in Brooklyn. We saw several cases a day over the course of two weeks. Most were minor crimes, and nearly all of them spoke to the gentrification and economic issues that beset the entire borough. Brooklyn gets marketed as the hipster’s paradise, but the white bearded hipster is the face of a small, and wealthy, minority. The borough is only 35% white, the median income only around $35,000. Case after case spoke to those inequities: iPhones snatched out of white people’s hands, a mugging in which a laptop and several cameras were stolen, another in which the attacker allegedly pointed his hand in his pocket to make like he had a gun when he did not. I think we returned true bill on nearly all of them. I recall thinking then that it seemed like an awful lot of institutional money and effort were going to protect devices that would be obsolete in a year’s time, and that the entire experience seemed petty.

You don’t get the whole picture when you serve on a grand jury (at least, you usually don’t). So I’ve no idea if the suspects apprehended in each of these cases were harmed by the police. I can predict that probably a lot of them led to plea bargains and prison time which almost certainly resulted in real harm. And for what? An iPhone, likely to be lost at the bottom of a drawer when the new model came out? What if one of those suspects had tried to run when the cops came, and was shot as he fled? In what universe is that death justified?

A few years ago, I might have scoffed at the notion of making a pact to never call the cops. Now it seems the only reasonable strategy. Kaba links to this essay, which encourages people to imagine what they would do instead of calling the police. The writer notes that most of us have calling the police as an engrained response to even minor threats, and we need to actively practice not calling them, by imagining the alternatives. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

But something else struck me about that advice: that in order to effect change, you have to imagine a future, then practice getting there. Imagination alone is insufficient. It takes work, too. And not work that you can do once then check off the list, but work that is repetitive, habitual, like getting up every day and going for a run. Which, when you think about it, is exactly what building a movement takes.