This is the “director’s cut” of a shorter article about the Cambridge DiscoTech published in The Dig. Reposted with permission.
You enter the Center for Civic Media through MIT’s fabled Media Lab, its lobby full of prototype future vehicles and artificial limbs. The elevator takes you up through the atrium, surrounded by glass walled labs with names like “Laboratory for the Connected World” and “Viral Spaces”. As you walk back to “Civic”, as it’s called, you encounter a different vibe, a hodgepodge of chairs and couches, and random artifacts like an outsized cowboy hat and a cutout Dr. Who Dalek. Civic’s vibe is not the only difference. While the Media Lab is in many ways an advanced research and development lab for capitalism, the scholars and students of Civic study things like how the Trayvon Martin story moved from social to mainstream media or how Anonymous’s denial-of-service cyber attacks fit into a history of physical denials of service such as boycotts and sit-ins.
The Codesign Studio, a class taught for the last few years by Assistant Professor Sasha Costanza–Chock functions as a critique of the expertise culture of MIT. The Studio’s core premise is collaborative design, that those creating for a community should design in a partnership with that community and should recognize the expertise and knowledge of community members. Collaborative design arose in the United States during 1990s, a response to the time when computers were still relatively rare, but were beginning to be used to define solutions and impose processes for large groups. Viewing these as a technologies of control, the “participatory design movement” strove to democratize these systems, starting with their design.
Chock, along with his teaching team, chose to focus this semester’s Studio on surveillance. While the Media Lab partners with corporations like Panasonic, Samsung, Google and Microsoft, the Studio’s partners represent a very different stratum of society. “Traditional” civil rights groups are present via the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the ACLU, but so are groups representing immigrants, public school students, victims of domestic violence and sex offenders. Each organization’s constituency has, in its own way, become a focus of surveillance. In New York schools, school security is handled by the NYPD, criminalizing misbehavior and creating what the Urban Youth Collaborative calls the school to prison pipeline. The Detention Watch Network focuses on ending mandatory detention of undocumented immigrants, for-profit prisons, and the detention bed quota, the mandate to fill 34,000 beds each night with the undocumented. Citizens United for Rehabilitation of believes that sex offender registries, by combining offenses as divergent as public urination and serial rape, create a class of people who are under life-long surveillance despite a low statistical probability of recidivism. TOR, the software project intended to provide enhanced privacy and security on the Internet, has joined with Transition House, the Cambridge-based domestic violence shelter, to increase awareness of how often victims of domestic violence are targeted for electronic stalking by their abusers. Entire networks of shelters and support groups have had their computers and phones compromised, and the police response is often unhelpful.
If hackathons are old enough to be said to have traditions, Saturday’s event at the Media Lab was non-traditional. In a more usual hackathon, there are introductions, perhaps some brief talks framing the purpose of the hackathon, then people with projects make pitches seeking to recruit other attendees to work on their projects. Then, it’s head-down hacking, sometimes overnight, until time runs out. A critique of hackathons is that they rarely meet their overt goals and that their true value is in the connections and community they create. This event was structured with that critique in mind, using a DiscoTech (“Discover Technology”) format and being more a community organized workshop/fair than a software-oriented hackathon. After introductions, participants break up into small groups and share stories about how surveillance has affected their lives. This serves as both an ice breaker and brief education. After hearing stories involving racial profiling and surveillance of dissidents, one participant asked to revise his answer that he’d not been affected by surveillance. His job, managing spam for a large email provider, his work was surveillance.
Short talks follow and then lunch. The measure of the approximately forty people who attended is that, in one lunch conversation, two people who had never previously met, compared notes on their last few weeks in Iraq where they had set up hacker and maker spaces, community networks and anti-car bomb community surveillance systems.
Meanwhile, similar events were taking place across the globe. In San Francisco, there was a hackathon focused on making the user interfaces of privacy and security tools more accessible. People in Bangalor, India worked on repurposing old closed circuit surveillance cameras. In Mexico City, participants given color coded ribbons to wear, indicating whether or not they wished to be photographed and were urged not to live tweet or live blog the sessions as some individuals might have specific security concerns. The San Francisco event was part of RightsCon, an annual meeting whose is goal protecting the open internet and the digital rights of its users.
After lunch, Cambridge attendees joined small workshops. One group experimented with facial recognition software and face painting, seeing what sorts of colors and designs worked to fool this increasingly prevalent surveillance tool. Another group held a threat model workshop, allowing people to map their assets, what threats may target those and the risk associated with those threats. This will allow the EFF to make their Surveillance Self Defense web site more approachable. A third group worked on “IMSEI catchers”, counterfeit cell phone infrastructure that allows governments and cyber-criminals to identify all cell phones in a specific area. The goal for this ACLU project is to find some way to, at least, notify a cell phone user that an IMSEI catcher probed their phone. Another group walked through the Kendall Square area, mapping public surveillance cameras.
As people moved from workshop to workshop, the day wound down slowly. Video hangouts were held with some of the other events, and as the sun set, a day of countersurveillance work came to a close.