Podcast Episode: The Life of the (Crypto) Party

Episode 106 of EFF’s How to Fix the Internet

Surveillance is always problematic, but it isn’t neutral—it is more often deployed in communities of color than elsewhere. And surveillance technology isn’t objective, either—it often magnifies the biases of its users and creators, affecting already-marginalized individuals far more heavily than others. Matt Mitchell, founder of CryptoHarlem, has an exciting solution for helping undo the damage that pervasive surveillance has done to those who are most profoundly impacted by it. 

Join EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Danny O’Brien as they talk with Matt, who has worked as a data journalist, a software engineer, a security researcher, a trainer, and a hacker—and learn more about how education, transparency, and building trust can increase privacy and safety for everyone. And best of all, you get to go to a party while you’re doing it.

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Podcast Episode: The Life of the (Crypto) Party

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You can’t fight back against surveillance unless you recognize it. CryptoHarlem, which Matt Mitchell founded, provides workshops on digital surveillance and a space for Black people in Harlem, who are over policed and heavily surveilled, to learn about digital security, encryption, privacy, cryptology tools, and more. Matt talks with Cindy and Danny about how living under pervasive surveillance dehumanizes us, why you have to meet people where they are to mobilize them, and how education is the first step to protecting your privacy—and the privacy of a community. But overall, he shows us how fun and exciting it can be to help empower and organize your community.   

You can also find the MP3 of this episode on the Internet Archive.

In this episode you’ll learn about: 

  • Cryptoparties being organized by volunteers to educate people about what surveillance technology looks like, how it works, and who installed
  • How working within your own community can be an extremely effective (and fun) way to push back against surveillance
  • How historically surveilled communities have borne the brunt of new, digital forms of surveillance
  • The ineffectiveness and bias of much new surveillance technology, and why it’s so hard to “surveill yourself to safety”
  • Why and how heavily surveilled communities are taking back their privacy, sometimes using new technology 
  • The ways that Community Control Of Police Surveillance (CCOPS) legislation can benefit communities by offering avenues to learn about and discuss surveillance technology before it’s installed
  • How security and digital privacy has improved, with new options, settings, and applications that offer more control over our online lives

Matt Mitchell is the founder of CryptoHarlem and a tech fellow for the BUILD program at the Ford Foundation. As a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation, Mitchell develops digital security training, technical assistance offerings, and safety and security measures for the foundation’s grantee partners. Mitchell has also worked as an independent digital security/countersurveillance trainer for media and humanitarian-focused private security firms. His personal work focuses on marginalized, aggressively monitored, over-policed populations in the United States.  Previously, Mitchell worked as a data journalist at The New York Times and a developer at CNN, Time Inc, NewsOne/InteractiveOne/TVOne/RadioOne, AOL/Huffington Post, and Essence Magazine. Last year he was selected as a WIRED 25, a list of scientists, technologists, and artists working to make things better. In 2017 he was selected as a Vice Motherboard Human of The Year for his work protecting marginalized groups.

Resources: 

Surveillance Technologies:

CCOPS and Community Action

Transcript:

Matt Mitchell: “Privacy is not secrecy. Privacy is saying, ‘I got a door, I got a door so I could open it. I got a room that no one knows about so I could invite the people who I wanna share this with. and I could say welcome, “We’re friends now. I wanna show you something I don’t share with everybody.” That’s a beautiful thing but you only can do it when you’re given the agency to do it. 

Cindy Cohn: That’s Matt Mitchell. He’s working in his community to get people to understand more about their digital privacy and security, and more importantly, how they can take steps to protect it. On today’s episode of How to Fix the Internet, Matt will tell us how he marshaled his neighborhood Harlem in New York City. And he’ll help us think about how we can all reach out to those in our own communities who might need a little help on understanding what their digital footprint looks like and how to make our online lives more secure. I’m Cindy Cohn. 

Danny O’Brien: And I’m Danny O’Brien. Welcome to How to Fix the Internet. A podcast of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Today how to build a movement, one person, one checkbox, and one security setting at a time. 

Danny O’Brien: Matt Mitchell is someone who does many things. He’s worked as a data journalist, a software engineer, a security researcher, a trainer, a hacker… 

Cindy Cohn: And we were thrilled to give him an EFF Pioneer Award for his work in his community. Matt founded Crypto Harlem, which hosts parties that teach people about protecting their digital privacy and educates them about modern digital surveillance. Matt, welcome to How to Fix the Internet.

Matt Mitchell: Hey, thanks for having me. It’s great to be here. 

Cindy Cohn: When you accepted your award from EFF, you dedicated it to Jelani Henry, can you tell us his story?

Matt Mitchell: Gelani grew up in Harlem and one day the police came to his door. They said, “We have reason to believe, by looking at social media, by looking at people’s contacts and their phones, that you were involved in a crime.” A crime that Gelani did not commit. And they took him from his home and he did not see home again for 14 months. Spent that time in one of the worst prisons in the world, Rikers Island in New York. And all of this is because of social media surveillance, something that happens every day in the inner city. 

Cindy Cohn: I think people who don’t live in areas like Harlem sometimes have a hard time visualizing the pervasive surveillance that happens there. Can you, can you give us some of what you see in your community?

Matt Mitchell: You know, uh, living in the inner city, anywhere in the United States, in a place like Harlem, you’ll be surveilled from the minute you wake up, you know? A lot of folks live in some kind of government subsidized housing. There’s a lot of CCTV recordings of these properties ’cause they’re technically government properties, and there’s different rules that apply to you, and what you can do and what you can’t do because this is technically, like, state or partly state owned. Then you’ll walk out into your courtyard and you’ll see these large floodlights that are either solar powered or gasoline generator powered. And it looks kind of like a guard tower in a prison movie, right? Where light is constantly shed and shined upon you and yourself. It goes through your window. People have, like, many layers of blackout shades. You see people just staple gun comforters to their window at this point ’cause it’s so bright. And that light doesn’t turn off until, um, the sun rises, right? So you also have this, like, constant gaze, this constant watching.

And then, you know, if you were to go just for a walk outside the courtyard around the corner,if you look up, you’ll see there’s cameras, surveillance cameras in the lamps. Also, on that same corner there’ll be a box that says Property of NYPD, and on it will be many different things from, uh, a camera that can be uh, controlled and turned and tweaked, a flat box which maybe looks like almost like an access point for a WiFi or something, but it’s actually a microphone, it’s part of the shot spotter system.

But for this apparatus to work, the microphones have to be on the entire time, so they’re always listening. And then when they hear the wave form or they match that pattern to what they believe is a database of firearms being fired, then it triggers or it’s supposed to work that way. And so that’s another element of the surveillance that’s around you. 

Danny O’Brien: Right.  

Matt Mitchell: Furthermore, you’ll have surveillance from, uh, the city level and on the corporate level as well. A lot of the folks who own a bodega, or what we call, like, our little, like, smoke shop and candy shop and grocery stores, they’ll get caught up in, this pressure from law enforcement, where it’s like, “Look, we want you to share, not just the footage ’cause someone was in here yesterday who matched the description of a criminal or there was a crime that was committed. But we want you to kind like, join our network of cameras so we can pull video when need to,” which includes a lot of folks just walking around and just doing their thing.

Cindy Cohn: It really does take eyes, you know, kind of careful eyes to see all of this surveillance because as you know, the public isn’t notified when this stuff is rolled out.

Matt Mitchell: I always say like we’re not, we’re not really against all of this surveillance tech. Bring it. Bring all these layers of surveillance tech to every neighborhood, to the suburbs, you know, to downtown, to the tourist area. Bring it because on that day, everyone will be up in arms. On that day, everyone will be like, “What is going on? This is not the society I wanna live in.” But unfortunately, the inner city is like a Petri dish, it’s like a beta test for a lot of this stuff. And you know, there’s a lot of commercial interests there. A company might say, “Well, we’ll basically give you the tech so we can say year over year we’ve proven that this thing does something or it’s being used by…” Like, if you say it’s being used by Chicago, New York or LAPD, everyone wants that thing, regardless of whether it works. And what we’ve seen is that the shot spotters go off and police are dispatched to an area expecting a firearm and there’s brutality because of that.

Danny O’Brien: When it happened in sort of upper-class neighborhoods, there would be a big discussion and eventually it would be decided not to roll it out. And then you watch the whole thing rollout elsewhere.

Matt Mitchell: Where communities have been subjugated to such huge amounts of surveillance generation after generation. People come to the CryptoHarlem event. they’re like, “Yo, we took some pictures. What is this thing? What is that thing?” That’s, often a thing that happens in our meetings with folks. And we go through it, we’re like, “Well, this is this piece of technology. This is who put it there, this is how it works, this is how it fails. We have this thing called CompStat in New York, which is police data you can look back, like, every crime that’s been properly filed as of yesterday, you know what I’m saying? So if it doesn’t matter, like, crime in this country is going down, laying out surveillance of the country is always going up. It’s not like there’ll be a day where you’ll see people on that ladder, taking down automatic licence plate reader or a shot spotter. So it’s all about like, “Can we gain ground? And then we’ll just upgrade the tech?” It just looks ridiculous after a while but no one ever takes it away.

Danny O’Brien: So you founded Crypto Harlem, what? Around 2012? What was your first meeting like?

Matt Mitchell: I would love to say it was like, “Nobody showed up, but we did it at anyway.” But it was packed, first meeting was packed. I mean, I was shocked. I could barely get in the room. It was people on the sidewalk looking into the building, into the community center, you know what I’m saying? ‘Cause, you know, in some communities, you have to give the whole nothing to hide argumen. But in the, you know, in these neighborhoods it’s like, “Oh, I know. I already know that I’m being criminalized. My identity’s criminalized, my- my existence is criminalized. And my grandma’s existence was criminalized, and her great-great grandma’s existence was criminalized. So it’s a history of surveillance, right? And to say I have a remedy for this thing that’s been plaguing you, people will show up like you’re giving out medicine, right? So, you know, that’s how that works when you do a Crypto party or anything like this in these neighborhoods, a marginalized community, it’s actually pretty easy. 

Danny O’Brien: Do you have a remedy though? Is there something that people can practically do in a situation like that?

Matt Mitchell: Community organizers in the hood they’ll sit down with folks, they’ll be like, “Okay, listen, you’re a laborer, you’re a worker, you’re undocumented, whatever your situation is. Let’s make a list of what’s plaguing you, things that you would change. Blue sky, dream a better world, right? For you and your kids.” And you take that list, all these things that are bothering them, and then you find what you know secretly it’s actually a- easy win, it’s a quick fix, you know, like, “And that pothole down the street,” right? You go to the nice neighborhoods, there’s no potholes, you know? 

So, you just teach folks like, “Look, this is how you show up. This is how you complain. This is how you go to this meeting. This is how the city ordinance is set up,” and then you patch that pothole. And with that win, they will work for years on the hardest thing on that list. You know, you have folks who have been subjugated to a huge amount of digital surveillance, we already know the panopticon.  We already know what that feels like. When they have a win and they’re armed with that, they will fight forever. 

Danny O’Brien:  Right.

Cindy Cohn: Privacy really isn’t about secrecy. It’s about control, right. And whether you have control or someone else has control, I think that’s exactly right. And when I’m hearing about your community, which is, you don’t have to convince people that they’re being surveilled or that, this stuff can be used against them. In some ways it’s a difficult community to work in because there’s so much surveillance and it can feel overwhelming. But what I hear from you is in some ways it’s an easier community to work with because you don’t have to convince people that there’s a problem.

Matt Mitchell: You don’t have to convince them. And, uh, because there’s so many layers of surveillance, there’s an additive effect that it’s so ridiculously [laughs]… It’s- it’s Terminator II world, right? And to- to just have any solution offered, that’s a community that’s ready, so ready for this. There’s a history of surveillance so they don’t need to be convinced about things, but also, it’s gotten so out of hand that it’s really hard to justify, right? It’s really hard for anyone to got their eyes open to justify. If you only put the cameras out, you’re like, “Well, it’s not that many cameras? They’re only here.” And if you only put the microphones out, you’re like, “It’s not that many microphones? They’re over here.” But when you see everything, then you’re like, “Okay, we went too far,”

Cindy Cohn: You actually go out on the street and talk to people and try to encourage them to come to these parties. So can you tell me some stories about how you’ve convinced people to come in? 

Matt Mitchell: Yeah, definitely.  I mean, the first thing is, you know, you can have the hottest thing in your mind, but no one’s going to show up, so you gotta be about it, like, “Hey, my life depends on it.” So if  you don’t get 10 people in this room like this is your last day, you’re gonna run around, you’re gonna grab everybody, you gonna go through the bus, you’re gonna run through the subway. Like, that’s the passion you need to have when you’re starting a movement, and you also have to meet people where they are. So you have to contextualize solutions for folks, so… And I’m like, “Hey, you know, nice phone. What’s your favorite app?” And they’ll be like, “Oh, I like this dating app,” let’s say. So you’re like, “Oh, okay, cool. You know, did you know that people can just find you, any, you know, anywhere you are, like, down to the second, like, down to, like, a split step away for you with that app?” And you’re like, “What?” And then you’ll be like, “Yeah, Kaspersky did this study. Let me show you this article real quick.” And then they’re like, “Damn,” right? And like, “How do I stop that?” I’m like, “Oh, just turn the setting off.” And they’re like, “Whoa.” And then you’re like, “Hey, I, we got more of these come through next week, this is the spot.” And people will show up because that’s how easy it can be if you meet people where they are, where their points of pain are, right? 

Cindy Cohn: We talk a lot about your work in helping people with their technologies, but you’re also been helping a bit with policies and laws as well. 

Matt Mitchell: I was involved with this thing called C Cops back in the day, which was Community Control of Over Police Surveillance. With that project, it was like, “Look, we should at least talk about this stuff.” Oftentimes, law enforcement will say, “Well, we don’t wanna share the information ’cause it gives upper hand to criminals.” Well, you know, when the French were like, “Why are y’all measuring heads? You should be using this thing called fingerprints, it’s a new technology back in the day.” Well, we all know that there’s a thing called a fingerprint and you leave it, it doesn’t stop you from getting caught with their fingerprints, right? It’s just this is the science, we understand it. With a lot of this new technology, it’s not well researched. The efficacy is questionable, and it’s secret, right? It’s secret. So we’re like, “Look, just tell us about it. Let’s look at the civil liberty,  privacy and other problems that might come from it and let’s figure out what we can do to mitigate that. You’re gonna use it anyway, you might as well just at least give us that ’cause it’s our money. It’s our taxpayer money or it’s civil asset forfeiture where you’re literally stopping people and taking their money to buy stuff to watch them with, which is totally messed up.”

Now, in New York, we ended up having something that’s called the POST Act, it’s a Public Oversight of  Surveillance Technology. But the NYPD has been so reticent to lay out exactly what they’re using. But even what they have given us is mind blowing [laughs]. Like, I was like, “Okay, we have x-ray vans, that drive around, and can see through buildings to watch people.” Like, “What? How many of these things? When do we get this like, and they’re, like, “We won’t, we’re only gonna use it in case of terrorism,” right? They said, “We have drones and the drones will only be used by the state police, right? You know, we use helicopters to look at traffic accidents, We’re only gonna use drones? It’s cheaper and safer.” Then it’s like, “Okay, and maybe to help during if  someone has got Dementia, they’re older, they get lost.” And then it’s like, “Oh, maybe it’s for the children. Maybe it’s And then next thing you know, NYPD is just flying drones around.”

Danny O’Brien: “How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science. Enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. 

Danny O’Brien: We’ve talked a lot about how technology can really harm people’s privacy and security. Is there any way in this sort of situation that you can use technology to help people?

Matt Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, I love technology. That’s why I got into this game, right? So as a hacker, I would say like if you look at the apps that I tell people to use, they’re all tech that was made by people, right? I think what we really need though is technology that’s developed and created by people who are directly impacted by it. So people always talk about Signal, which is dope, right? It’s like the gold standard of encryption but, you know, homie came from a tech company and he not about this life, this stuff didn’t really happen to him, and look what he made. So imagine what the next person who actually is like, “Hey, I wanna solve this for what’s going on with my community, what’s going on what I see, from the viewpoint of my mosque or my street corner or my teenage runaway center,” or whatever, you know what I’m saying? We need to be able to support those technologies. A lot of times, they’re open source technologies. A lot of times, there’s people who, you know, who give grants to support that stuff. And I think like that- that’s the win right there. Anybody, you can literally take something that’s designed for you to consume technology all day like a mobile phone, with black and brown folks over index on, we got mad glittered out phones, you know what I’m saying? If there’s no keyboard on it, you can’t write code on that, but you can actually now program on these things. So I’ve taught folks like, “Yo, let’s take a look at this Python, let’s look at this algorithmic bias on your phone,” we did it. It’s not the most fun thing in the world, but you could do it. And, I mean, when you’re time rich and the surveillance is on you, I think that’s the future, is like building tech solutions and hacking our way out of these tech problems, right? Wonderful. 

Cindy Cohn: Oh, and I also really love the idea here that, like, we don’t need one killer product. We need a million killer products because every community is different. There are some things everybody needs. I certainly would put encryption on that list, but how that gets deployed could come up in a million ways, depending on what the communities need. And that we shouldn’t be thinking of a one size fits all killer app, we should be thinking about a whole universe of tools that people are empowered to build themselves. 

Matt Mitchell: I feel, like, directly impacted communities, they’re going to solve their own problems and they don’t really need anyone to come save them. They just need the tools, they need the resources. Maybe you need to know how to- how to exactly write that code or do that thing, you know what I’m saying? Um, so yeah, like, the Glover Center is this spot in Oakland, little homies just coming in and coding VR. Like, it’s amazing, right? So like, you know, We need more of that.

Danny O’Brien: There’s another element of this, which is. You know, building capacity within the community of educating people about how the technology works so that people can understand better how they’re being impacted and how to mitigate it too. Right. It’s is, is that, is that part of your mission? 

Matt Mitchell: This stuff is seriously hidden, right? So, um, and there are allies in strange places. Like, we got people who came in, like, “Hey, I work at the precinct down the street. This is so messed up. I gotta tell you, like, something has to be done. Blah, blah, blah,” right? And or will be like, “Yo, here’s a tweet. Like, y’all see this? Why is there a dog walking into this housing projects behind these cops? Like what’s this thing too, blah, blah, blah.” It’s a robot. So we’ll research it. We’ll look into it. We’ll talk to people like, this is what this is. This is how it works. But without action, why, You’re just, you know, you’re just scaring people, right? Your first time you go to a dentist, they don’t show you videos of people with, like, advanced gum disease. You know, when you go to the doctor talking about your health, they don’t tell you about illnesses you could do nothing about that keep the doctor up at night. No, they don’t. So we don’t do that either. We talk, we keep it hopeful, we keep it actionable, and people want that message, right?

But we also are realistic, and we map it to there’s many ways to stop these things. We should be fighting on every single front, right? If you’re someone who’d throw a party in your living room and say, “Look, oh, we should know about this,” do that. If you’re someone who would, you know, throw a ballot in a box and vote against something, do that. So, like, we’re just gonna lay out every real thing and we’re not gonna tell you how to protect yourself, your family, your neighborhood or anything like that, right? 

So I think that’s a message that most people don’t normally get. They get told this kind of one way message, right? And it doesn’t always make sense for them because of what they’re dealing with, that is the path. And then real change actually happens, and that’s the surprising thing.

I had someone ask me, like, “Aren’t y’all just sticking your finger in a dam? And then you’re sticking your finger in another dam? And then you’re sticking your tongue, in your nose, you’re trying to just stop this flood from happening?” And I’m like, “Yeah, welcome to being Black in America. Like, that’s how we fix all our stuff,” you know what I’m saying? Like, it has to be this way, in that space, you can raise a child. In that space, you can go to college. In that space of just a little freedom and safety, you can better yourself. And that’s what we’re about. We’re about winning through those margins.

Cindy Cohn: That’s great. Hey, do you have a favorite story of somebody who you kind of worked with through Crypto Harlem and how you kind of saw the light go off and, and saw them kind of take control over things?

Matt Mitchell: Oh, yeah, yeah, that happens all the time actually, but, Yeah, I got this one story, right? You know, there was this young homie who came in and I was like, “Are you even lost?” Like, you know, maybe this person was in the wrong place and, so he shows up and he- he does this whole thing. He goes and checks it out, he comes back again. He talks to me afterwards. We… There’s a place next to the spot Harlem Business Alliance where we have this, the community center, which is on the corner of Malcolm X and- and Martin Luther King, which is pretty poetic and cool, but it wasn’t- I didn’t even decide that. And next door, this place called Harlem Shake, we usually just break bread and I’ll just buy some fries and just talk to people ’cause you really… After the event, people wanna process and talk. And he had so much to say and I was like, “Well, check out this video. Check out the…” we have a lot of checklists and one pagers. And he went through everything and, um, he was like, “Hey, man. I wanna do more.” We had this thing called the Glass Room that was in San Francisco at one point, but it was in New York. And he ended up working on- in the Glass Room as one of the ingeniouses there. We had this whole setup, it looked like electronic store but is really talking about surveillance. And he became one of the most, like, passionate anti surveillance speakers on this issue. 

And then he was like, “Hey, um, I think I might try to apply for this job.” And he applied for this job at a tech spot and he got this job and it’s like, you know, this is a brother from Harlem, you know what I’m saying? Every time I see a Crypto Harlem video or picture, he’s in that background. And he writes me, he’s just like, “You changed my life. You changed my family’s life. You changed my friend’s life.” And he’s just like, you know, that’s what’s up. We need the younger, cooler, next version of me, you know what I’m saying? I want the, like, you know… wha, whoever they are out there, you know what I’m saying, or- or she or he is out there, you know, we need that, like, cyberpunk Afro-futuristic, baby matt  to come up, you know? So I wanna see that. And that’s just one story. I mean, I could tell you more. 

Another thing that we wanna do is, which we think is quite important, is bring it back to the people. So if we get a donation, if we get opportunity, we bring it back to the people. So I’m like, “Listen, if… How’s it gonna look if I’m telling you this stuff?” But reality is, you know, you, maybe you need money, maybe you need a job opportunity, maybe you need some kind of thing. So we always make sure, we do that, you know what I’m saying? Like, another thing we do is we teach folks cyber security stuff on a path to get certified because there’s more jobs than people in that space. It’s relevant because there reaches a point where you need to, like, know how to read code, to find the bias in the thing, you know what I’m saying? And like, “I could do that.” And I’m like, “You could do that too, let me show you how to do that.”We need to understand high level cyber security stuff, get your CompTIA certifi… you know, security plus certification, so you can understand how to push back and have that authority. People will look at you, they will underestimate you based on your identity, so you need to come up with this stuff. 

Cindy Cohn: That’s such a key thing about building a movement, right? Is that you’re, you know, you’re not just treating these people as the spectators, right? Like they’re just watching a show, that’s about digital security. You’re bringing them in, you’re supporting them. You’re building the kind of, um, network and community. And you know, we’ve talked a lot about Harlem and your home communities, but I also know that you, you think a lot about how to, how to had to, had to do this kind of organizing and communities that are not at all, like the community that you came from, places that are rural or that are more distributed. And can you talk a little bit about that?

Matt Mitchell:  I worked globally, you know, I worked in private security, I worked for non-profits. I worked for NGOs, you know what I’m saying? And, you know, whoever is on the margins might look differently, but the treatment’s the same and the playbook’s the same.  So you might be like an ethnic Russian in Estonia, right? You might be in a place where I can’t even tell, I’m like, “Yo, who… what’s the difference between this Albanian brother here and this person there ’cause, like, you know… Or that German and this German that you’re telling me it’s, it’s a class different.” But then you’ll quickly see that, “Oh, that neighborhood has more surveillance because I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you. I won’t ask. I will find out by watching, by surveilling,” right?

What you look like and what the community look like might be different but how this rolls out is painfully, obviously very the same. And therefore, the conditions we can use to organize and push back against it are equally the same. So, you know what? It works in our favor too ’cause they could use the same playbook to hurt, we could use the same playbook to succeed and win and help. 

If you live in the United States, in a rural neighborhood, in a rural area, there’s a lot of farmlands, a lot- No- not a lot of opportunity. From the cost of just getting on the internet is- is unfair, there’s not even equity there, right? Your options and- and choices are not fair, right? And when you speak to people, I think it’s about that common ground, and that’s how you build a nationwide movement, right? But I,love working in the inner city because I figure like, “Look, if we could stop it there, we could keep all these pains from being experienced by much larger numbers of humans.”

Danny O’Brien: Yeah. No community is, is, is monolithic. Right? And, and I know that in situations and places where people suffer from a lot of crime, which is where the first argument about this kind of pervasive surveillance take place. There’s a lot of people who, who live there, who, who wants some help and, and see surveillance as a solution, right? Rather than a problem. That they’re more scared of the crime than they are of the potential of the technology. What’s your way of, of interacting and bringing them into this discussion. 

Matt Mitchell: Well I think it’s about, fear is used as a tactic. You know, obviously, your rational mind and your emotional mind is a constant battle, right? And if you’re in a moment where you’re panicked and you’re stressed and you’re just reacting fight or flight like that- that animal trying to just survive, that’s the moment where you’re not making the best choices, you know? So if I just tell you to do some simple math, one plus one is two, two plus two is four, you start using your rational mind, you start getting outta that place. So, that’s what we try to do. We try to show up and just be like, and respect the fear, right? For example, look at the Asian communities, right? With Asian hate. People won’t even call a hate crime, a hate crime.  It’s so obvious, right? I have to respect, this is a reality right? And you work with the people who are trusted in that community, if I wanna talk to the Korean community in Queens, a lot of folks are religious, so I need to go to the Korean church, right? A lot of folks are gamers, I need to go to the Korean internet cafe. I gotta find folks who, you know, um, represent the community, not just as in literally, like, identify like, “Yo, I’m from here, this is my neighborhood,” but also the way they stand up in the community, right? They’re the most popular, uh, Cos player or whatever, you know what I’m saying? So you bring them in and, um, that is your entry point to fighting against fear because that level of trust, that level of friendship, that level of, like, “I share your pain, I share your- the history of surveillance that happened to you. I share trying to make you safer, Who doesn’t want a safer day? Who doesn’t wanna safer street for their kid? Everybody does, right?

Matt Mitchell: So and then explaining that these things they’re actually dangerous, they’re not safe. That’s the kicker. And that’s what does it for folks because all of these technologies come with a pro and a con like every tech, right? Every tech has a little positive or negative, but surveillance tech, the negative is killer. The negative is so bad that once you break it down, nobody wants to go near it.

Cindy Cohn: If we’ve, if we’ve gotten a handle on this stuff and we. You know, shrunk surveillance to the limited place that it ought to have in our society. How, how does that look from where you sit? 

Matt Mitchell: I’m a dreamer, I’m a blue sky person, so I’m a, 100% abolitionist. Like, zero surveillance everywhere, right? Surveillance has always been as a tool to hurt people, so… But I think it looks like little things, you know? I also believe in celebrating every victory that comes from the community organizer in me, you know? So, you know, like, when I open up my phone and there’s a settings area and it says Privacy, like, that wasn’t there before. I’m an old school nerd, there was no security settings before. That’s a win. And the more settings in there, each line they add is a win. And, you know, like, when people are like, “Oh, see this camera up here? woo, boo,” whatever, right? That’s a win, right?

Matt Mitchell: Every animal wants to be free, right? Every human being wants to be free. Every child wants to be loved. All these things, surveillance the opposite of, so you know what I’m saying? I think, like, what’s that future look like? No cameras, no sensors, none of this stuff on the corner, a little bit more trust, little more acceptance that technology can’t protect us from the things that we created, the evil things that we’ve created. 

Cindy Cohn: The stories just keep coming. You’re right. You know, every day it gets clearer and clearer. Um, and, and now we need, you know, whether it’s people in the ballot box or people on the policy side, or people who build the technologies decide, Hey, I’m not going to be part of this.

Matt Mitchell: In some parts of the world, we see protests where they’re just like, “Hey, that ham- that hammer and that camera need to meet, you know, they need to get lunch together.” So [laughs], you know, like, whatever it takes. And I wanna see it done the right way and I wanna see it done through policy and through law because that’s the best thing. Like, civil rights taught us that, right? When you have the laws, they might not be respected today, but those are what you stand on to change the future tomorrow.

Danny O’Brien: Matt Mitchell. Thanks very much.

Matt Mitchell: Thank you. 

Cindy Cohn: That was terrific. And just so inspiring. I really appreciate that. Matt really just took us on a walk through his neighborhood to show us all the surveillance. I mean, it was chilling and of course it just drives home how marginalized communities are disproportionately targeted by. I did buy a surveillance. And I kind of appreciate the silver lining of that, which is that he doesn’t have to convince his community. That surveillance is a bad thing. They already know it and they know it from generations. 

Danny O’Brien: Yeah, surveillance can often be so sort of out of sight out of mind. It’s it’s, it’s this strange contradiction where it becomes invisible just as it’s making you visible to whoever is out there, spying on you. Those walks just as a practical community organizing method those like walks and tours. I know Oakland privacy does this of just pointing out where the cameras are incredibly effective. The thing that you take away from is the lesson that I think we all learned is that fear just blocks learning, right? It just paralyzes you. And what you need to do is, is you need to respect the fear, or you need to understand that people often come to you out of a fear and concern, but you want to get rid of that fear and then add a historical lens that makes them understand why this is happening and gives them the possibility that things could change.

Cindy Cohn: I think that the thing that really shines through in this is that, you know, Matt’s not just teaching security- he’s building a movement. He’s empowering people. He doesn’t do security training as if people are just passive listeners or, or students. He he’s really working on giving people the tools they need to protect themselves, but also turning themselves into leaders. Including, especially because this is about cybersecurity. I mean, people having real careers and the ability to feed their family from this story. I mean, that’s how you build a robust movement. 

Danny O’Brien: And I think that builds on the idea that technology isn’t just an enemy here. It can also be part of the solution. It can also be one of the tools that you use to fix things. And I love the idea that the ultimate solutions are going to be built by the communities who are impacted by them. 

Cindy Cohn: Yes. I really love his version of the future when we get it right. Not only that, that every little community is going to build the technology that they need, because they’re the ones impacted by it. They’re the ones who ought to build the technology that best serves them. Right. But also again on the movement side, you know, recognizing that small steps matter that we have victories every single day and that we celebrate those victories. And then of course the bigger long-term vision, you know, finally living in a world where we realize that we cannot surveil ourselves to safety. That’s a world I want to live in.

Danny O’Brien: Me too. Well, that’s it for this week on How to Fix the Internet, check out the notes on this episode for some of the resources Matt and Crypto Harlem built and recommend so you can learn more about your digital security or pass it onto someone that you know. 

Cindy Cohn: Thanks to our guest, Matt Mitchell for sharing his optimism and vision for a future with less surveillance and more humanity.

Danny O’Brien: If you like what you hear, follow us on your favourite podcast player. We’ve got lot’s more episodes in store with smart people who will tell you how to fix the internet. 

Nat Keefe and Reed Mathis of Beat Mower made the music for this podcast, with additional music and sounds used under creative commons licence from CCMixter. You can find the credits for each of the musicians and links to the music in our episode notes. Thanks again for joining us, if you have any feedback on this episode, please email podcast@eff.org, we read every email.

How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. I’m Danny O’Brien.

Cindy Cohn: And I’m Cindy Cohn. 

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