The Cambridge Media Lab DiscoTech

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.

DiscoTech Report Out – Lisbon

I immediately had a decentralized crush on the Lisbon event. In the spirit of the event, Pierre picked up the template over on our live wiki and ran with it – when I asked him if he needed any help, he enthusiastically told me he was excited but set. We did a checkin call recently to followup and see where they’re going from here.

I work for a startup called Seedrs, been doing devops for almost two years. We are the first equity crowd funding platform in Europe. Interested in internet freedom! Really like the initiative, wanted to organize one. Found out about it through twitter somewhere. Found the description, said “let’s do it.”

To make for an accessible introductory activity, they started with by making DiscoSoupe. Everyone brings vegetables, chops and cooks, and then eats together. I love this, as an alternative to the usual “go out for a drink after.”

image_2The 15 gathered activists and hackers stood at a chalkboard in the street of the ancient district of Alfama in Lisbon as they did knoweldge shares around what the internet is, differences between circuit switching and packet switching. They were interested to understand protocol, IP, and public key / private key for encrypting communication. Passersby and tourists asked questions questions, shared a lot. Did Workshop : Name That Tech (where the picture is from)

Pierre, the organizer, really liked having a pre-set workshop (Name That Tech!) so he could spend more time on gathering people and the organizing. They’re excited to be a part of a larger community focused on these topics, and their next gathering will be based on doing as well as knowing, with a CryptoParty happening 15th of April: event link

Mexico City DiscoTech

This post was written by Mariel of SocialTIC. Thanks, Mariel, for all the awesome work and the follow-up!

The 2012 elections brought political change in Mexico, and it hasn’t been positive in terms of State surveillance. At a time when threats to journalists and human rights defenders continue to increase, several reforms have been pushed in the federal and local congresses to make surveillance of private communications fair game. Behind legalese and political discussions that are anything but transparent, most citizens don’t realize what’s happening.

This is why action is necessary in Mexico: we need to raise awareness on the state of surveillance. And the Surveillance DiscoTech was a step in the right direction.

The DiscoTech in Mexico City began with a workshop on digital security focused on the basic ways individuals can protect their information (or at least make surveillance a much more difficult pursuit). All the participants had the chance to test email and chat clients that enable encryption, and learn the basics about digital security.

After the tech basics were covered, it was time to talk about the changing legal landscape, and about the surveillance projects that rarely make the local media. Luis Fernando García, human rights lawyer that works on freedom of expression and digital rights, talked about the current legislation. Despite the fact that private communications are, in theory, protected by law, government agencies have intervened more and more repeatedly since 2009. Last year, 700 interventions were carried out; this year, we are at 12000 already.

Congresses are passing a lot of reforms that force telecom companies to retain data indefinitely, that grant government offices access to anyone’s communications without a judiciary order, and that justify surveillance by claiming it’s all done in the best interest of those at risk (like human trafficking victims). These modified laws seem to have no checks and balances. The surveillance possibilities that are being granted by law are highly invasive, secret, and will certainly make a lot of money for a few companies.

Jesús Robles Maloof, human rights defender and lawyer, talked about the surveillance projects that rarely make the news: for example, FinFisher, a malware found in Mexican computers and that is believed to have been bought by an agency in the Mexican government. He also posed questions that, after a day of tech training, left all of us with food for thought: should we keep trying to race against the government by becoming better at using technology, or, in fact, is it a race we will lose? Should we focus instead on the main problem, which is to eradicate State surveillance?

Click CC for translation captions
Sasha Costanza-Chock also joined this discussion to talk about his research and the reasons why this DiscoTech was organized and then celebrated in different locations.

The Mexico City DiscoTech saw hands-on learning and discussion among people who are targeted by surveillance. One of the closing remarks came from a human rights defender who decided to share her conclusions on the DiscoTech: having learned about different aspects of surveillance, she would walk away aware of the need to be more mindful of how she uses technologies, no matter what they are or what she’s doing with them.

In our opinion, mission accomplished.

SocialTIC is a non-profit organization that works to promote the use of ICTs for social change in Mexico and Latin America. We work on information-based activism, digital security and data analysis with NGOs, human rights defenders, journalists, local groups and engaged citizens. You can follow us on Twitter.

San Francisco Hackathon/DiscoTech (+ RightsCon + Responsible Data Forum)

Has it already been two weeks? Holy wow.

I’ll be aggregating the summaries from the Countersurveillance DiscoTechs across the world over the next week. This first one is easy enough, because I was there! This post shamelessly yoinked from my own blog, with mild adaptations.

Countersurveillance DiscoTechs

With the Codesign Studio I TA with the Media Lab, a series of Discovery Technology (DiscoTech) Workshops were put on. The ones in Bangalore, Ramallah, Mexico City, Boston, and San Francisco were all inspiring. You can see more about the projects, art, and progress over on our hackpad. Some examples were stories from Venezuelan activists, face painting to deter facial recognition (so hard!), long-time surveillance on poor communities in America, and spoofing DNA.

And seriously. Take a few minutes to go through the partner pages for this. Need a bit of morning outrage? Think everything’s going pretty ok in the world? Nope!

UI/UX for Crypto Tools Hackathon

The second usability hackathon with OpenITP went incredibly well, and repped as the San Francisco DiscoTech as well as its own thing.

The number of projects worked on is impressive, to say the least. You can read more about the objectives of the sprint and what was accomplished via the associated links.

Guardian Project: Bazaar and InformaCam

The Guardian Project creates easy-to-use open source apps, mobile OS security enhancements, and customized mobile devices for people around the world to help them communicate more freely, and protect themselves from intrusion and monitoring.

Commotion Wireless 

Commotion is an open-source communication toolkit that uses mobile phones, computers, and other wireless devices such as  routers to make it possible for communities to set up  decentralized mesh networks and share local services. Deployed already in a handful of U.S. cities and internationally, it is a key tool for internet freedom, providing alternatives where surveillance and censorship compromise traditional infrastructure.


Martus is a secure and open-source human rights documentation system used by human rights initiatives to document and preserve evidence and testimonies of human rights violations.


StoryMaker is an open source app for making and publishing multimedia stories with any Android phone or device, as safely and securely as possible. It provides an interactive storytelling training guide, walkthroughs, and templates for users to follow as they plan their story and capture media. The app then helps assemble the content into a finished format that can be shared directly with social media or anywhere– no computer editing station required, even for video!


Lantern is a network of people working together to defeat internet censorship around the world. Install and share Lantern, our new peer-to-peer censorship circumvention software, to give or get access to people in places where access is censored

The Serval Project 

Serval is a telecommunications system comprised of at least two mobile phones that are able to work outside of regular mobile phone tower range due thanks to the Serval App and Serval Mesh.


ChatSecure is a free and open source encrypted chat client for iPhone and Android that supports OTR encryption over XMPP. ChatSecure was originally available for only iOS devices, but is now also available on Android via The Guardian Project’s similar app, formerly named Gibberbot.

Open Whisper Systems

Whisper Systems produces simple and easy-to-use tools for secure mobile communication and secure mobile storage. Their products include RedPhone and TextSecure, which allow encrypted VoIP phone and text (SMS) communication between users

People’s Intelligence

People’s Intelligence is an award winning idea that makes use of USSD, SMS and voice to establish a conversation with victims and witnesses of mass atrocities. The envisaged tool helps victims and witnesses to better document and verify their stories and provides them as well as relevant organisations with actionable information, thereby facilitating early warning and targeted assistance. It supports analysis and allows networking between affected communities, relevant organisations and experts through the use of ubiquitous technologies.


Mailvelope allows individuals to encrypt and decrypt email in their favorite webmail provider following the OpenPGP standard. This includes, among others, Gmail, Yahoo,, and GMX. It integrates directly into the webmail user interface; its elements are non-intrusive and easy to use in a user’s regular workflow.


It was really nice to completely surrounded by the people I usually see when we all jam into the one or two sessions at any tech or policy event which involve both. But that overlap was the whole conference, so we were able to dive in much deeper, see more nuance, and see next steps. I learned about funder motives, and the initiatives which backed tech in atrocity prevention/detection/accountability, and about many many tools used to amplify the voices of marginalized people. I drew a lot, and I hugged even more.


Full set on bl00viz.

Typed Notes!

I typed notes for two interactive sessions for sake of formatting. One was a review of the the UI/UX hackathon the weekend before, the other was stories from the field and suggestions for how to be better trainers. Those can be found over on the Civic blog.

Responsible Data Forum

Thursday I trekked out to Oakland to participate in Engine Room‘s Responsible Data Forum, as hosted by the inspirational Aspiration Tech. Again, I was spoiled by being surrounded by an impressively diverse set of people interested in the same fulcrum of concern and change. We skeletoned out plans for checklists before collecting data, and workflows that include project death, and illustrated how data moves through a company. We talked hosting and coercion resistant design and informed consent. We also talked about context-based privacy in disasters. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of the day.