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Design for the margins: New tools for online privacy, security, and anonymity

Open Privacy Research Society

Erinn Atwater and Dan Ballard are two of the three founding members of the Open Privacy Research Society, an innovative new not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver that is devoted to developing new tools for online security, privacy, and anonymity using an approach that centres the needs of people who are marginalized in a variety of ways. Scott Neigh interviews them about the organization, about their work, and about some of the complex technical and social issues surrounding it.

It's a basic fact of 21st century life that our data – meaning data that belongs to us and data about us – regularly ends up in the possession of people and organizations that we would rather did not have it. Mining our data and selling it or otherwise making use of it is central to the business models of most social media platforms and many other online services. Malicious interception or theft of data by third parties happens more than we might like to think as well.

Whether this is being done by companies offering us a service, individuals looking for a quick way to make a buck, or agents of the state, most of us most of the time would probably prefer that it not happen. And some groups of people face much more acute risks. For example, closeted queer and trans people who are exploring their identities in online contexts could face dire consequences if the wrong people were to find out. People (most often women) who have an abusive partner might face significant danger if their partner were to discover their efforts to seek resources and supports. Because of social stigma and risk of violence from both potential clients and from the state, some sex workers make use of various kinds of online tools, and can face heightened risk when those tools are compromised or eliminated. And of course privacy, anonymity, and security can be major concerns for people engaged in radical grassroots political work, whether that is keeping the logistics of a direct action secret from the authorities, or whether it is resisting the long-term surveillance that is integral to state repression of radical movements, particularly those based primarily in Black, Indigenous, and people of colour communities.

Along with her role in co-founding Open Privacy, Atwater is also doing a PhD in issues related to the organization's work at University of Waterloo. Until recently, Ballard worked as a developer for a major company, a position he left to begin working full-time on Open Privacy's projects. Their third co-founder, Sarah Jamie Lewis, has followed a path similar to Ballard's, and in addition she is the editor of a book that in part informs Open Privacy's work, called Queer Privacy: Essays from the Margins of Society.

The first major project of Open Privacy is a protocol and application for messaging called Cwtch. While there are existing messaging systems that are fully encrypted, the innovation with Cwtch is that it won't depend on a central server and it won't leave a trail of metadata that can be intercepted. Metadata – meaning information about things like the source, destination, timing, and frequency of digital communications – can reveal a lot more about us than you might think, so Cwtch will be a significant step forward in terms of privacy and anonymity. They hope within a year to have the application available for use. Cwtch will also serve as infrastructure for more elaborate projects they have envisioned for the future.

In producing both Cwtch and subsequent projects, a key goal for the organization is useability – most tools for encryption or online privacy that currently exist are very difficult to use, and they want their work to be the sort of thing that anyone can easily adopt. And unlike most initiatives to develop software, their work will also centrally involve people who are marginalized in various ways. Certainly this means the developers themselves, in certain respects, but it will also mean deliberate work with people from a broader range of marginalized communities to involve them in the organization's governance and to ensure that their experiences and needs are centred in the process of design. Continuing to do research, writing, and public education around online privacy, anonymity, and security as it intersects with various marginalized identities is also part of the group's plans.

It is, in part, the fact that they do not have to find ways to make money back for investors that makes this orientation possible. Incorporating as a not-for-profit is an unusal thing in the tech sector, particularly for an organization focused on software development, but they are hoping that community interest in the kinds of tools they intend to build will lead to sufficient donations to keep Open Privacy afloat.

And, yes, it is certainly true that the role of anonymity in creating safe and just online environments can be complicated – the vicious right-wing harassment campaigns of political opponents and marginalized people that we have seen in recent years have certainly made use of anonymity. But our current online tools and platforms are doing a pretty rotten job of handling such things, and Open Privacy hopes that new approaches to development that centre consent and what they call "design for the margins" will allow them "to build tools for people and for communities, tools that cannot be used against them, tools that give them control."

Image: Used with permission of the Open Privacy Research Society.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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