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Matt Mitchell Is Arming Underserved Communities With Anti-Surveillance Tools

The founder of Crypto Harlem learned firsthand how companies prioritize their needs over individuals. Now he's sharing his knowledge with those who need it most.

Humans of the Year

Matthew Mitchell had one of his first encounters with surveillance in the 1990s. At General Electric, his work usually involved repairing computers. But after a sexual harassment incident at the company, superiors asked Mitchell to retrieve his co-workers' search histories.

"They needed to keep an eye on the scientists," Mitchell told me in an interview during the recent Chaos Communication Congress, an annual hacking, politics and activism conference in Hamburg, Germany.

But Mitchell refused to spy on his colleagues. He deliberately made the snooping tool look in the wrong place, so it didn't recover any browsing data.

"No one has to do anything. If we're just following orders, we'll march off a cliff," Mitchell told me.

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Now, Mitchell tells others how to circumvent surveillance. He is a founder of Crypto Harlem, a project that helps some of the most heavily monitored people on the planet—people of color in the US, and especially those who are politically active—learn about security, privacy, and the digital threats against them.

READ MORE: The Black Community Need Encryption

The kid of immigrants from the Caribbean, Mitchell was always hacking. When his parents couldn't afford to buy a computer, they instead bought him a subscription for a technically-focused magazine. He memorized scripts and commands, and wowed his friends by manipulating video games.

"One: the companies want to surveil the people. Two: the organizations, the companies, don't have people's best interests at heart."

In the late 1980s, someone introduced Mitchell to 2600, the infamous hacking collective and magazine publisher that would meet to discuss the latest tricks in phreaking and exploits. Whether in a McDonald's or a Dunkin' Donuts, Mitchell would turn up, but be treated as a ghost.

"I quickly realized when they were going around saying 'hey, what's your name?' that they skipped me because they just thought I was there for the doughnuts," he told me.

This, Mitchell says, is because he is black. But Mitchell could use race to exploit security vulnerabilities.

"If I wear a UPS-looking outfit, and I carry an empty cardboard box, someone will let me into a building," he said. "If I have a mop and a bucket, someone will get me near the server."

"You use that to your benefit," he added.

Shortly before 9/11, Mitchell worked in the airline industry on IT support. One day, he was in the server room; it was freezing cold.

"There's these halon tanks; if there's a fire it just dumps this gas that sucks all the oxygen out of the room to keep the servers safe," Mitchell said. "And I was like, 'wait a second, don't we need oxygen?'" 

That and the General Electric anecdote present a couple of different lessons that Mitchell learned early on.

"One: the companies want to surveil the people. Two: the organizations, the companies, don't have people's best interests at heart," he told me.

All this time, Mitchell was training journalists and activists in how to communicate securely; stuff like encrypted email. Seeing animal rights campaigners he admired get imprisoned only encouraged him to help more. He went on to work at CNN and the New York Times.

But it wasn't until the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 that Mitchell switched to a more organized training model. Some people were running so-called crypto parties in New York—gatherings where attendees can learn about how to overcome mass surveillance, perhaps by using a VPN or Tor.

"But they weren't the people who were directly affected by this stuff," Mitchell said, meaning blacks, Muslims, Latinos. As Mitchell explained, marginalised communities are often the ones that face new surveillance powers and technology first.

The parties at the time were, "like five people at a table, over lunch talking about how awesome Snowden is," he added. In other words, tools were not being provided to those who needed them most.

So, Mitchell launched his own crypto-party project. The first was packed: around 50 people crammed into a Harlem community centre space.

"The solution to the problem is to get directly affected people the basic skills and tools to get started on this stuff. It's not for the white hacker to show up and save the day. Because that's just not going to happen," Mitchell said.

"Knowledge is power. We're hoarding it; we're starving people from it, people who need it."

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