Ever heard of a cryptoparty? It’s a gathering of people interested in privacy and encryption. You’ll often hear of cryptoparties in association with techy, geeky spaces or organizations, and they’re usually dominated by computer-savvy nerds who are often male or white or both—Edward Snowden types, basically.
Recently, Motherboard attended a cryptoparty in a less obvious place: Harlem, the predominantly black neighborhood in New York City. But whatever you might think, Harlem is the perfect place to find a cryptoparty.
The New York City Police Department is increasingly monitoring and targeting young people of color on social media in what critics say amounts to racial profiling. “Is the online surveillance of black teenagers the new stop-and-frisk?” asked a headline in The Guardian, referring to the now-banned practice of stopping people on the street for “suspicious behavior.”
On top of that, members of the Black Lives Matter protest movement are now reportedly being targeted. Vice News broke the news in August that Deray Mckesson, a prominent civil rights activist, had been identified as a “professional protester” who was “known to law enforcement” and had his Twitter account monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Intercept also reported that DHS has been tracking the protest movement and even watching over events that seem innocuous, including a silent vigil and a funk music parade.
In other words, simply exercising your right to protest is enough to get you on the feds’ radar.
This sounds familiar. In the 60s, COINTELPRO, short for Counterintelligence Program, was an FBI program for domestic surveillance that spied on the Black Panthers. Even the FBI itself now admits that the program was overreaching, violating the First Amendment and other rights. The FBI also kept files on black leaders including Martin Luther King Jr.
The threats to black privacy are why Matthew Mitchell organizes Harlem Cryptoparty. In his past life, Mitchell was a data journalist at the New York Times and, before that, a developer at CNN. Nowadays he works with journalists, activists, and specifically people in his community of Harlem, on issues surrounding digital security, privacy, and surveillance.
“A lot of times I’ll hang out with hackers in hackerspaces and people who do digital security stuff for the United States, and they’ll always say, man, it’s like there are no black people who want to know about this stuff,” Mitchell said.
Of course, that’s not true—although there may be many black people who don’t know they want to know about this stuff. Beyond the fact that everyone has something they want to keep private, the black community has reasons to distrust the police, especially with the revelations about the Department of Homeland Security (and the Oregon Justice Department) monitoring Black Lives Matter protests.
For this week’s Radio Motherboard, we spoke to Mitchell and Nusrat Choudury, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Racial Justice program, about why the black community might want to use encryption.
We also discuss how the growing number of privacy intrusions from hackers, government, and law enforcement may be creating an elite class of techies who know how to protect themselves, while the rest of the population is stuck being surveilled.
1:35 “We are in… Harlem Shake!”
2:24 Mitchell explains why a cryptography meetup makes sense in Harlem.
5:05 In order to reach the Harlem community, you have to recruit offline.
7:55 Cryptoparties and privacy events are still rare in the inner city in predominantly black and Latino communities, even though it’s not just a hypothetical threat. “You’re worried about, hey this guy threw me against a wall, flashed a badge at me, took my phone, he said if I gave him the phone he’ll let me walk, otherwise I have to do paper work. What was he doing with it?”
9:40 Nusrat Choudury from the ACLU’s Racial Justice program joins us. She wrote this piece, “The Government Is Watching #BlackLivesMatter, And It’s Not Okay.”
12:40 There is a pattern throughout history of the government using the fear of threats to conduct surveillance on “people who look or act different.”
15:30 A private security firm called Zero Fox collected information on protesters in Baltimore and labeled some “high severity physical threats.”
18:06 That’s our podcast, thanks for listening. And encrypt yourself!