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Digital self-defense lessons for protestors


It wasn't too long ago that Google was considered a search engine with an unofficial motto, "don't be evil." Elsewhere, Facebook was merely a social media platform, and Pokémon GO was just a harmless game that brought augmented reality to mainstream audiences. But Shoshana Zuboff warned that we were sleeping walking our way into a new age of surveillance capitalism

The business model that underpins our digital world includes mining our minds for behavioral data. While we are endlessly scrolling down our smartphone screens, data points are created from our interests, locations, and everyday habits. These metrics enabled tech behemoths such as Facebook to proudly brag to advertisers that they can identify teenagers when they feel 'insecure' and 'worthless'.

Unfortunately, global mass surveillance is no longer just another dystopian prediction. Almost everything that we now do is tracked and recorded on a server somewhere. We also find ourselves living in a digital world where emotional manipulation can be sold to the highest bidder. 

Digital surveillance defense training

Although governments were initially alarmed by the increasing power that tech giants held over its citizens, some believe that they are now attempting to exploit the global pandemic to usher in invasive powers. Predictably, users now need a form of digital self-defense to protect themselves from the increasing surveillance capitalism experiments. 

Many police forces are now using facial recognition vans to identify persons of interest who might exist on pre-determined watch lists. When government drones and aircraft are being used to watch protesters in the US, maybe you should think twice before trying to capture the perfect Insta moment. 

Tagging people or sharing photos of protestors in distinctive clothing on social platforms is the equivalent of throwing your fellow protestors under the bus. By contrast, many are turning to face paint, smart bandanas, and clothing with images to confuse facial recognition tools. The more tech-savvy are leveraging a variety of tools to blur faces and remove metadata from their photos.

Break free from your echo chamber

The technology that promised to unite us is often used to implement advanced processes that produce ignorance by circumventing our awareness. It's no accident that the news stories that appear on your timeline are often your own opinions are fed back at you in a continuous echo chamber cycle. 

Don't be afraid to question what you read and actively seek opinions that challenge your worldview. Only then can you break free from your online bubble where a virtual puppet master is pulling your strings. For these reasons alone, you also need to resist the urge to check-in and confirm your attendance of a protest march on a platform such as Facebook.

Preparing your smartphone

One of the great ironies of the many conspiracies online is that authorities do not need to inject anyone with microchips to track their every move. The smartphone in our pockets contains all the information anyone would need to track and identify you. The mobile carrier that provides you with a generous data package will also broadcast data about which cell towers your phone connects to and when.

Fans of the Wire will remember how mobile phone data was captured through the use of an "International Mobile Subscriber Identity" catcher. But these IMSI catchers are regularly used by authorities that impersonate mobile phone base stations and trick smartphones to connect to them. The German Parliament has already shared the number of IMSI catcher operations undertaken by the intelligence service.

Facial recognition and fingerprint technology have provided a safe, convenient, and secure way of unlocking your smartphone. But it also makes it incredibly easy for anyone to seize your phone and hold it up to your face to open it. The best way to protect the information on your phone is by using a secure PIN that others cannot guess.

Enabling airplane mode when not using your smartphone will prevent your device from transmitting signals and is an excellent way to prepare your phone for a protest. But don't forget to only use encrypted messaging apps like Signal to protect your privacy when communicating with others.

Social media intelligence (SOCMINT)

In 1993, it was the early days of the internet. A cartoon in the New Yorker about our newfound anonymity online encapsulated the moment perfectly with the caption, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." But the days of completely redefining yourself and living a second life on the internet is now just a distant memory. There is no longer a luxury of being anonymous online.

The monitoring and capturing of information posted on social media platforms to generate profiles and make predictions about users might feel a little to close the Minority Report. But, continuous surveillance of protestors via social media platforms is already happening all over the world.

The questionable surveillance tactics are often used to continuously scan the public's tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, and anything you might be posting online. Your posts will reveal much more about your state of mind, opinions, personality, and people you talk with than you probably realize. This judging process happens out of sight, so remember, anything you post online could be used against you.

An automated society

The technology that was initially used to automate information about us as unique individuals is arguably now being used to automate entire communities. Newsfeeds and timelines can be used to engineer the context around behavior and force subtle changes via a gated institutional narrative.

Over the last few weeks, 24-hour rolling news channels have focussed on the looting of retail stores in a narrative of divide and conquer rather than uniting the global community. But many are asking why the same attention was not given to the looting and exploiting of our private data. The same people who said they had nothing to hide are now unable to protest in some countries without the risk of being identified by the metadata in their online photos.

Our addiction to smart devices and always being connected has created an easy to follow trail of digital footprints. What initially felt harmless has turned into digital surveillance on a grand scale. It regularly used to counter civil disobedience and even prompt retaliation against peaceful protesters. 

Until we can turn hindsight into foresight, we will keep repeating the same mistakes. Refreshingly, many are waking up from their slumber and understanding the importance of online privacy. The fact that protesters have an increasing awareness around the dangers of invasive technologies and sharing tips around how to defend against digital threats fills me with a little hope.

For many years, privacy advocates warnings about the dangers of sleepwalking our way into digital authoritarianism were largely ignored or dismissed as alarmist. The bigger question is why it has taken a global pandemic to highlight the need to regulate the surveillance tech that is beginning to feel worryingly close to an Orwellian nightmare?

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