by Gem Barrett
In recent years, circumvention and privacy-conscious tools have moved from the stuff of spy films and conspiracy theorists to become an urgent mainstream necessity for every citizen. Far from being gadgets for James Bond-style operatives, these tools have been developed and used quietly in the background for years by those working to protect human rights in repressive regimes in areas such as the Middle East, Africa, and China. In recent years, through leaks, legal challenges and contentious law changes, it’s become clear to citizens across the US, Europe, and Western democracies that the right to privacy is increasingly under threat from governments and corporations.
The task of building privacy tools that literally save lives falls to a small group of individuals and organisations. Encryption apps such as Signal, anonymity tools like the Tor browser, and censorship circumvention technology like Psiphon all are examples of the excellent work done by these groups. This work is not at all easy, and few developers, designers, QA engineers and project managers have made the move from the for-profit to the non-profit tech communities. Wages are lower than the mainstream market rate, requirements are constantly changing, and the stakes are incredibly high. A bug that allows a message to slip through unencrypted, shows the device’s location, or exposes an activist’s real identity can mean harassment, jail or even death for the user. Even the teams creating the tools work under pseudonyms at times, their own lives being at risk due to the threat they pose to oppressive government regimes.
These teams have struggled to keep up with an increase in demand that hasn’t been matched by an increase in resources. While the explosion in new users has been widely welcomed with relief as this work is finally recognised and taken seriously by mainstream audiences, it has brought with it significant challenges and highlighted the huge chasm between those on both sides of the profit line. The expectations of new users have been set by big budget tools made by the likes of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, and many have found it frustrating to sacrifice, even slightly, the usability, slick design or language options when switching to privacy-conscious alternatives. The additional pressure being put on already-stretched teams to support this new user group make the deficiency of skills and resources more readily apparent in the tools on which everyone is becoming ever more dependent.
In light of all this, it becomes clear that what is needed to bring these tools into the mainstream is more resources, including skilled contributors and industry support. Thankfully, in recent months, many in the for-profit tech community have been asking themselves how they can use their skills to the fight against oppression. In response, three main areas have been identified:
1. Listen to those doing the existing work
Because of the sensitive nature of the work, it can be hard to find opportunities to get involved with the existing projects that are out there. First steps can include seeking out organisations and community members on Twitter and attending events like the Internet Freedom Festival. Speaking to those working in this space, reading the resources they share, and gaining an understanding of what’s actually needed, and where is important for finding opportunities and to understand the context they exist in. For example, while tools such as Signal may be rising in demand in the US, they still need to support existing users in Nigeria – some feature suggestions may not be a priority or even appropriate, and should be handled carefully.
2. Contribute to the existing work being done
All sorts of skills are needed to move circumvention technology into the mainstream. App developers, project managers, UX designers, people who speak multiple languages, developers with accessibility experience, systems administrators—all of these, and many more, are urgently needed. Many of the tools are open-source and issues can be found on their repositories. If you hear of a tool or organisation whose purpose you care about, look them up on GitHub, search their website for a volunteer opportunities page (such as this one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation) or reach out directly to offer support. Beyond volunteering, job opportunities and fellowships in this community are rarely advertised on mainstream job sites, but are instead posted on individual organisation websites and/or shared amongst a network of trust via Twitter and mailing lists.
3. Advocate for the existing work
Encouraging the people in your life to make the switch to privacy-conscious tools helps everyone involved. The team behind it receives more feedback with which to make improvements, your network becomes more secure and protected, and the less privacy-conscious tools receive a clear message that they need to try harder to protect their users. If you work for a tech company: advocating for user privacy and ethical product design choices can be a valuable move toward increasing mainstream support for the work done by those in the rights and freedoms community. Discussing these tools online, and explaining the pressures around their development to those who are disappointed by a lack of features or slick design can greatly ease the pressure on the teams behind them. Given so much of this work is done voluntarily or for low wages, donating money helps support these valuable tools and their further improvement for future mainstream users.
By taking one or more of these steps, people across the wider tech community can help to support the growth of circumvention technology and the band of technologists, activists and organisations who work hard in the background to fight for everyone’s rights. As the situational pressure looks likely to get worse due to our ever-changing political landscape, it’s important to consider how those of us in the for-profit tech community can use our skills to support the fight against surveillance, rights violations and other forms of oppression. Your skills are needed, your input is welcomed, and your advocacy is invaluable—now is the time for you to get involved.
Gem Barrett is an information security technologist who works with human rights and civil society organisations. Her achievements include a Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship at the Open Technology Institute, a Making All Voices Count Fellowship with the Digital Rights Foundation and in 2016 she was recognised with the Powerful Woman Programmer award by DC FemTech.