Surveillance costs lives

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I gave a brief talk yesterday, followed by a Q&A, at the screening of CITIZENFOUR at the Cube cinema in Bristol. I was asked to talk about why I care about privacy, surveillance and digital rights. The reasons why I care and the particular aspects of digital rights that I am passionate about have changed significantly over the years, so in some ways this was a good opportunity to articulate that, and I thought I'd share with the class.

[Trigger warnings/content notes for discussion of domestic abuse, LGBT+ teen suicide, and institutional racism and ableism.]

One of the elements of my current PhD research involves looking into whether and how the internet facilitates political activism (in the widest possible sense of the term, because the personal is political), particularly for minorities and otherwise marginalised groups. Let me give you some examples.

One in four lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have no adult they can talk to about their sexuality, either at home or at school[1]. Many of them will therefore turn to the internet for information and support. For many LGBT+ kids today, the first space where they will feel safe being themselves will be online.

If you happen to be experiencing institutional racism from the police, or feel that you're being treated unfairly by the JobCentre because of your disability, again, the internet is a likely place you will turn to for information, support, and to find other people with similar experiences.

Or, if you're a woman experiencing street harassment on a daily basis, or in an abusive relationship, you may also seek help online.

There are many places on the internet that will provide you with practical advice or support: How do I come out to my Mum? How do I make a safety plan in case I need to leave my husband? What particular combination of forms and shibboleths might make the JobCentre treat me like a human being?

But there's something else that happens too, something incredibly powerful, when you tell your story, and someone else stands up and says, "Me too." Because suddenly, what you're going through isn't just a private, personal issue, something that is wrong with you and that you need to deal with on your own. You become aware that your issue affects many other people, that it is a social and political issue, and you can talk about it, and organise, and bring it into the public sphere.

Except, things work rather differently when you're under surveillance.

Let's go back to the queer kid, whose only access to the internet is at school. Half of it is filtered anyway, and the other half is monitored. Would you type "How do I know if I'm trans?" into Google if you knew that one of your teachers could see it an tell your Mum; if the horrendous possible consequences include being kicked out of home, or being subjected to serious physical violence?

How much more difficult is campaigning for justice if you're the Lawrence family? If the police not only botched the investigation of your son's murder but, to add insult to injury, put you under surveillance to make sure you weren't rocking the boat too much?

And what of the woman in the abusive relationship, who knows that the police have access to data on how and when she used her phone, what she typed into Google; who knows that cops are two to four times more likely to be domestic abusers? Even if her partner isn't a cop, she may rightly feel it's too risky to seek help online.

The real problem here is that minorities and marginalised groups are disproportionately hit by surveillance. Partly this is a structural effect of the fact that we rely more than others on the internet as a place to meet and organise. But it's also because some of these groups are specifically and systematically targeted for surveillance by the security services. If you happen to be a person of colour, or your name happens to me Ahmed or Muhammad, you bet that your data is subjected to much more scrutiny by the security services than if you're a white, middle-class dude called John Smith. This is regardless of whether you have anything to hide.

But not only does surveillance have a chilling effect on the kinds of issues that can be discussed and brought to public attention; not only does it disproportionately hit minorities and marginalised groups; surveillance costs lives.

One in four LGB young people have attempted suicide, and nearly half of trans kids. Two women every week are killed by current or former intimate partners. And if surveillance plays even the slightest role in these people not being able to access help, or meet others with similar experiences, or organise and campaign, then surveillance is at least partially responsible for those deaths.

And that's why I care.


I would also like to address one question that came up in the Q&A, which is "How can we find the right balance between privacy and security?" This is one of those tropes about privacy that just refuses to die: the notion that somehow there is a trade-off, and that if only we were willing to give up that little bit extra of our rights, we would somehow be magically safe from the big bad terrorists. If this is how you conceptualise your own privacy and security, I would really like you to question the implicit assumptions behind the privacy vs security dichotomy. I would particularly like you to ask yourself who you need to be safe from. And I would like to posit to you that if terrorism is genuinely the greatest threat to your existence, then you live an incredibly privileged life indeed. For most of us the threats come from elsewhere. With 45% of women experiencing domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking at some point in our lives, the existential threats we face come predominantly - and unfortunately - from men. And if you're a protester in Ferguson, MO, tonight, then by far the single greatest existential threat for you comes from your own police force. These are not issues we will solve with more surveillance.

[1] These figures are from Stonewall. I am not aware of similar figures existing for trans youth, but suspect they are higher.

Creating safe and inclusive spaces within geek and hacker culture is something I struggle with fairly frequently. See, for instance, this from last June. I believe those of us involved in similar endeavours need to talk about it openly and frequently: to each other to share best practice, to event organisers to ask them for support, and to our geek and hacker communities in general to achieve a cultural shift. The !!Con team reflected powerfully on their experiences and failings. Below is an equally powerful piece from my friend Drcable around similar themes. I would like to thank Drcable for sharing their thoughts and ask all of you to continue this conversation.

(Drcable is a cyborg who just wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, society sucks and is the most interesting problem to solve, so they ended up a designer and activist)

Over the last summer, I volunteered with the safer spaces team of a European hacker camp, trying to prevent and deal with any incidents that could arise from putting approximately 1000 mostly white, mostly men in a field.

We expected incidents. We tried to prevent them. Broadly, we were successful. There was one incident which I would class as preventable without the need for a massive cultural shift, and several other incidents which, while absolutely not acceptable, would have been unpreventable given current society, without significantly changing the nature of the event.

Most of my experiences of safer spaces work involve more radical, explicitly feminist events, at which the norms of behavior are significantly different to those of the broader patriarchal, racist, and generally oppressive, society. Hacker camps are not - for all their talk of "disruption" and "freedom" - like this. They are a place for white dudes to fly quadcopters and shout about text editors over 8-bit live coded music.

The camp had a safer spaces policy that is pretty typical for the tech world- cribbed off and credited to the geek feminism wiki, worded to not cause a fuss but still be useful. The camp did not have centrally organized areas, meetings, or workshops for oppressed groups. It did not have a policy of banning people from the camp who had caused disruption at other events.

Any place which does not explicitly filter for feminist engagement, or by experience of oppression, is going to reproduce patriarchal biases. Sometimes this filtering happens by self selection- advertise yourself as a feminist event, among a feminist social circle, and you're going to get people engaged with feminism attending. Sometimes it is explicit: put up a "no cis people" sign, and you're going to dramatically reduce, if not remove, the number of transphobic incidents.

Of course, filtering, of either type, is never enough. "Engaged with feminism" can easily fill your event with racists, homophobes and transphobes. "No cis people" is well documented to produce racist and indeed transmisogynist spaces.

Filtering will produce awareness of certain biases among your attendees. However, it is impossible to produce awareness and full understanding of all biases, because it is impossible to experience every form of oppression. People have unique experiences and can be blinkered to others' experience of the same oppression.

Hacker camps do not filter, because unless you want there to be twenty people rather than a thousand camped in your field, then there's little point. Hacker camps, when they provide the slightest nod to people other than white men, use safer spaces policies.

Safer spaces policies are there not to prevent the reproduction of all patriarchal biases, but to prevent their manifestation in violence- verbal, mental or physical. They're there to lower the cost of participation for people from oppressed groups from "I'm going to get slurs shouted at me all day" to "I'm going to feel slightly out of place".

Of course, they also have a second purpose - they are a form of fliter, a message saying "we're not actively violent towards oppressed groups and if you are then you're not welcome". How effective this is depends on how well the policy is publicised. If it's on the front page, impossible to miss when you buy your ticket, then it's a more effective filter.

Safer spaces policies are not going to be 100% effective at removing acts of violence. Because your selection of society inevitably reproduces some of society's oppressive biases, given enough opportunities for an incident, there is going to be one.

That is my take on most of the incidents that were reported to us, post event[1] . These incidents where casual misogyny of the kind that is usual under patriarchal societies. They would have been impossible to predict, and without significantly more filtering, were likely to happen. This does not mean that they should have happened, or that we should not learn from them or use them to educate people about what can happen in future. These were not "minor" issues. They are not an acceptable cost of doing business, but they are an expected one.

There was one incident that was preventable. Vinay Gupta had proposed a talk, and it was accepted, and made it past light vetting by the organizers.

Vinay is known, at least among women and other oppressed groups in technology and political circles for his misogyny, transphobia and racism. However he had never, to the organizers' knowledge, done this from the stage. So obviously it was a great idea to give him this opportunity.

The safer spaces team was convened very close to the event (approximately one month prior) and had not been involved in talk selection.

We discovered he had been involved because I was going through the program, and noticed his name. It was a 100% fluke, outside any protocol. After much debate, we decided that there was less chance of an incident occurring if we chose to let his talk continue, though we were clear that he should not have been invited in the first place. While this decision may seem counter-intuitive, and with hindsight was incorrect, the main factor influencing this was the fact that he is known for taking call outs badly and loudly, often responding with slurs and (verbal and/or mental) violence.

This decision, along with the recommendation that someone from the safer spaces team attend the talk and be ready to deal with any incident, was passed on to the organizing team and they accepted it, and the criticism that he should not have been invited.

Before the talk, I identified myself to the stage crew, warned them that he had a reputation, and said that we might need to deal with an incident from stage. The stage crew were aware of parts of his reputation, but had not been briefed by the organizing team[2] . We agreed to be ready to cut his mic if things went bad.

[cn next paragraph: descriptions of rape apologism and anti-semitism/nazi and fascist references]
During the talk, he made references to a "nerd reich" or "nuclear powered american reich", along with describing being charged a lot of money by your plumber as "being raped by your plumber".

The decision was made by me (as a member of the safer spaces team) not to ask for his mic to be cut - a disturbance on this scale would have done more damage than good. My call, if you were there then feel free to disagree with it, and discuss it with me if you really want to.

I requested, coming up on the end of his talk, that an apology be made from the stage team. This was instantly accepted by the team and the moment he left the stage, someone went up and issued an apology for "inappropriate language".

Were I giving the apology, it would specifically have called out his rape apologism and anti-semitism. Later on, at a meeting with the organising team, it was made clear that he will not speak at the same event again. Overall, the response to the incident was satisfactory.

It is however clear to me that we should not have allowed him on stage. He had a history and we made a bad call, partially in the hope that it would all go away. We should have dealt with it before he had the chance to do damage.

However, the reaction of the camp to not allowing a well known speaker and activist on stage would not have been pretty. The camp was not a feminist event, and decisions like that would have triggered days of mailing list outrage, twitter rants, and on-site tension.

The culture of the camp was not in a place where such a decision would have been considered normal, and we allowed that culture to affect the process. The system we're operating within will always affect our decisions, however we didn't make sure that there was a sufficient separation between the culture of the camp and the conduct of the organizers. This did damage to vulnerable attendees.

This separation is precisely the reason we have formal policies and separate teams. There are complex reasons why this separation fails, from lack of support from the organising team to activists not having the energy or mental health to deal with the demands (self care and the pressures of safer spaces are another post, and a long one).

At the end of the day, we must always consider our vulnerable attendees first and any other concerns, those of the team and of optics, for example, must be held back for a later date.

I must end this section with a warning: Vinay Gupta is not a person who can be trusted to speak at your event. He is a well known misogynist, anti-semite, transphobe and rape apologist. By giving him a platform you are exposing vulnerable members of your audience to possible violence and sending a message that you do not care about us. You cannot do this and claim to be a safe space.

There were other failures in the safer spaces team. We were all white(passing). Our disabilities were few, and mild (we were also tasked with dealing with access). We were small, and did not have resources to dedicate to education of the attendees, which may have prevented some of the other incidents. These are, to my mind, problems of hacker culture. A safer spaces team is never going to be as well resourced as it will at a comparable feminist event, and even feminist events muck up, as wiscon showed us.

A safer spaces team will never succeed 100%. There will always be failures as long as the current societal norms are oppressive. Whether it's the white guy with dreads who you just can't get the org team to kick out, or the transphobe who shoots a nasty look at your friend, you're never going to eradicate oppression in a weekend within one person, let alone a thousand.

Broadly, I think that the team did a good job. We can learn from our mistakes and you can learn from them.

[1] We had no reported incidents during the event, several were reported later, and dealt with.
[2] We had not requested this, through the organizing team had flagged him as a possible incident on their own during vetting.

Bi Visibility Day

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It is Bi Visibility Day today, and I am delighted to see that even Stonewall are celebrating and acknowledging that we make up the largest part of the LGBT community. A few people have reacted to that piece of information with surprise - which is no wonder, given the systematic erasure of our identity that we experience on a daily basis.

The stat about LGBT people you are most likely to hear is that we as a combined community make up somewhere between 6 and 10% of the population. Data on this isn't easy to come by, and you will get huge variation in results depending on how exactly you ask the question, but 6-10% is a commonly quoted figure. It's also handy, in that it makes us as a community look big and significant - people can easily visualise one in ten. You go into a meeting, a classroom, a pub; you count 30 people and there you go: statistically, there's three queer people there!

What you only rarely get - and generally only when you go digging - is a breakdown of the make-up of the LGBT community itself. I have some theories as to why this is the case and why, in particular, bisexual people making up the largest part of the community is such a surprise to many. It's an effect of the interplay between hetero- and monosexism.

If, as heterosexism posits, being straight is better than being gay, and if, as monosexism effectively posits, some people have the "choice" to be straight or gay, then clearly those people can just choose to be straight and have no problems whatsoever[1]. These people are not oppressed, so we don't have to deal with their issues in the same way as we have to deal with lesbian and gay people's issues, because lesbian and gay people don't have that "choice".

From a very warped, monosexist point of view then, acknowledging the size of the bi community within the LGBT community gives our oppressors a tool to dismiss us, make us seem smaller and less significant. If a third or half of us are bi, then suddenly we're not looking at one in ten anymore, we're looking at 1 in 15 or 1 in 20. That's a lot more difficult to visualise - it's practically no one at all! Hetero- and monosexism combine to give a powerful incentive to both straight and gay people to systematically dismiss, diminish and erase the existence and importance of non-monosexual people and identities.

Of course, sweeping bisexual people under the rug is not a long-term viable strategy for resisting the oppression of queer people. Acknowledging, celebrating and working to meet the needs of all the different parts of our community is the only path to equality for all.

[1] Note also that there's a hefty amount of gender binarism involved in this way of thinking.

[Elsewhere] Rainbow Teaching launches today

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Over the last few months I've had the privilege to be involved with an excellent initiative to provide LGBT+ inclusive teaching materials and help create safe learning environments for all students. Rainbow Teaching, which launches today, is a volunteer-led project which provides teachers with ready-made, easy to use LGBT+ inclusive resources across the school curriculum. To celebrate the launch, I wrote a blog post for their website:


I learned to pick up signals on whether it was safe to be out before I knew I was queer. I am as startled by this realisation as anyone, but that doesn't make it any less true. I remember the first time I heard the word "homosexual". I had no idea what it meant at the time, but it sounded like a dirty secret. I remember my father disapproving of a particular music video because it had women kissing in it. I don't remember anything from biology class except this: our teacher explaining (incorrectly) how anal sex between men led to HIV transmission. All this between the ages of 7 and 12. Later, there was the teacher who was sacked for being gay, and being taught "Where Angels Fear to Tread" without reference to Forster's sexuality.

Read more at Rainbow Teaching

[Elsewhere] Self defence and sexual violence

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I was on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour yesterday, talking about self defence and sexual violence. You can listen to the programme here for the next year or so.

A change in direction

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I am delighted to share that as of October 1st I will be starting a PhD at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, University of the West of England, Bristol. Those who know me will no doubt be entirely unsurprised by the fact that my chosen area of study is at the intersection of multiple fields: politics, culture, gender and sexuality, fandom and the digital world. In my fully-funded PhD project, I will investigate fanfiction narratives and discourses of consent and sexuality in a political context.

After over ten years as a technology manager in the private sector, it was time for a change in direction. I have enjoyed my career so far, and I have learned a lot of from it. I have had the opportunity to lead business-critical projects, manage relationships with key business partners, analyse and leverage retail data to directly increase sales. I've recruited some great people, and I've had the opportunity to help my employer become a fantastic place to work for LGBT employees. I've worked with some amazing people, whom I will miss.

I am almost at a loss for words about how much I am looking forward to this exciting new challenge. I left my heart in research and academia, and I am incredibly privileged to be able to go back to find it. My PhD project combines many of the different strands of my interests, from the interaction between politics and culture, through LGBT issues and violence against women, to digital rights. My experience in these areas will inform my research, and I intend to continue to be an active campaigner in these areas in a variety of ways.

I will probably be fairly quiet over the next few weeks as I pack up my life and move to the other end of the country, but I expect this blog will very soon start reflecting my academic interests and research, in addition to the mix of topics you are already used to. I very much hope that you will come along for the ride.

[Elsewhere] Pragmatism 101 for activists

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So many times as an activist I have run into the conflict between pragmatism and idealism. One of the more useful people on the doomed Yes to Fairer Votes campaign for instance was Nigel Farage - a man whom otherwise I find thoroughly despicable. Another example is my work on QUILTBAG+ issues in the workplace. It's easy, when confronted with a corporate environment, to tackle the "low-hanging fruit" of lesbian and gay issues first and save what a friend of mine calls "the gold-plated conversation" for a "later" that somehow never comes.

I've been guilty of this myself. Last year I very nearly stood up in front of an LGB conference to talk about bisexual issues and played the respectability card of "Well, I am the good monogamous kind of bisexual." I was saved from myself at the last minute by another friend.

Read more at The F Word.

[Elsewhere] Immigration is a feminist issue

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I left the country of my birth at the age of 10. For six years I was only tolerated in my new home because my father had a work visa. My mother, too, was in Austria on a family visa with no right to work. It is telling what I remember from those years. My father's present to my mother for our first Christmas in Austria was a bank card allowing her to access his account. My parents didn't often go through really rough patches in their marriage but the one time they did, when they didn't speak to each other for two months and it looked like they would be getting divorced, my mother asked me if I wanted to stay in Austria with my father or return to Bulgaria with her. I was 11, maybe 12. I knew even then that if she wanted to leave my father she had no other choice - and that I would not go with her. I remember my mother struggling to learn German with very little social contact, and then struggling again to get a work permit. I know what she bought with her first own paycheque in Austria: a dishwasher. My mother, a research chemist originally, is now on her fourth career as a result of our migration; and while her current work is reasonably skilled and highly-paid, it is nothing like her first career.

Read more at The F Word.

ETA: You now also read this article in Polish on Codziennik Feministyczny. Many thanks to translator Robert Kielawski.

[Elsewhere] Expecting More

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Last week saw the publication of Julie Bindel's new book, "Straight Expectations", partly based on a survey which deliberately and specifically excluded bisexual people. Ruth Hunt, Acting Chief Exec of Stonewall, tweeted on Monday morning,

Read more at The F Word.

[Elsewhere] Rape and Reputation

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I am guest blogging on The F-Word this month. My first piece was on our society's obsession with the reputation of alleged sex offenders. Trigger warnings apply for the piece and most of the links in it for discussion of sexual violence.


It's been an interesting couple of weeks for sexual assault and the law. Last week Radio 4 ran an edition of the Moral Maze titled "Should the accused as well as the victim be given anonymity in the trial of sex crimes?" Panellists fell over themselves to explain how the legal system was tilted in favour of alleged victims of sexual assault, how the accused's reputation was in tatters forever even if they were acquitted. (As I have written elsewhere, there are good statistical reasons for that.) This week has of course seen the conviction and sentencing of Rolf Harris on 12 counts of indecent assault. And there it is again, that phrase, "Your reputation lies in ruins", this time uttered by the judge himself.

Read more.

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