Stories from people affected by surveillance culture

Contribution — leading product strategy, research, prototyping and usability testing, end-to-end design and developement, content strategy.
Context — August 2013 - May 2014, for MFA Thesis at SVA’s Interaction Design.
Details — The thesis was a culmination of exploration, conversations, research and introspection spanning almost one year. Watch (or read the transcript of) my thesis presentation at Open IxD 2014, or view the prototype and thesis blog posts.

Project background

In the summer of 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked his first National Security Agency (NSA) documents, the world finally learned of the size and reach of the US and world surveillance programs. But after the initial alarm that comes with every news report, interest fades, because surveillance culture is portrayed in media as a policy and data-centric topic. There is a lack of personal connection with the public conversation and news cycle about it.

Very simply, surveillance is complicated, and people are not yet sure what it means to them, what it could mean some day, and what they can do about it. Surveillance Stories is a platform that makes sense of our surveillance culture through personal storytelling.

As part of the masters Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts’, each student was to choose to explore any topic from an interaction design perspective. My design practice and focus is often inspired by the state of the world, and in 2013, I was compelled to study surveillance and privacy.

I leaned on my values and past work in open source and transparency, individuality and collective narratives

In the past, I have worked on projects that highlighted the richness of individuality and personal storytelling to create a larger narrative.

1. MIXUS — In a globalized world, identity has become increasingly complex. People are self-identifying in multiple ways. They are multi-racial or second-generation, or they identify more with a horizontal identity, such as being gay, than they do with their ethnicity or nationality. Only a generation ago, certain disabilities or differences were ostracized. MIXUS is an exploration and celebration of this complexity.

2. Collective Story — Collective Story is a toolkit for community engagement. The toolkit provides opportunities for anyone — individuals, groups, schools and other local organizations — to gauge public opinion, provoke discussion and create collectively. We experimented with a series of storytelling prompts distributed across New York City over a span of a month, and piloted Collective Story posters with Border Crossers.

3. Crabgrass — Crabgrass is an open source platform designed for social networking, group collaboration & network organizing. Its goal is to create communication tools that are tailored specifically to meet the needs of bottom up grassroots organizing, and is a secure & privacy conscious alternative to for-profit social networking & organizing platforms. While working at UNICEF, I had the privilege of contributing to a few iterations of Crabgrass; these were my early introductions to working in an environment where privacy and safety of our users were a high priority. The privacy conscious mindset has been embedded in me since then.

My ethics were jolted awake by antiquated laws and NSA surveillance

Blog Post — January 15, 2013
Aaron Swartz hits a Raw Nerve
Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2012. He was a software developer and profoundly moving author. He was committed to internet freedom activism and was the founder of Demand Progress, which launched the campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA. Before that, he co-founded Reddit and played a key role in authoring what we know of as RSS now.

I believed in Swartz's principles. The powerful laws and systems against one individual's ethical code led to his suicide, and I couldn't shake the unfairness of it all. The resulting outpour of support from people for his causes overwhelmed me; there was something larger happening I felt a part of and wanted to more actively participate in. Around this time, I applied to work at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and spent summer of 2013 in Cambridge, MA. With colleagues at Berkman, I designed Pepper Soup, a fellowship in Nigeria leading up to the 2015 presidential elections, with the goal of uniting civic-minded actors to collaboratively address pressing challenges in the areas of governance, transparency, and accountability.

The Berkman Center community was filled with people working on the relationship between the Internet, law, society, ethics, and the evolution of our behavior with technology. That very summer, The Guardian reported that Edward Snowden was behind the most significant leaks in U.S. political history, and revealed the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities. Berkman Center was a unique place to be as this news broke; everyone was opinionated and already taking part in the dialogue by consulting with organizations wanting to respond in the best way to the leaks.

The state of the world is that, at this time, the Internet is at the crux of business and innovation. More specifically, as networks in the digital space have grown, our government and industry requires new forms of regulation for safe-keeping of intellectual property.

Julian Assange, Anonymous, Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz went head to head with the government for their ideals. They have been demonized for being anti-democratic even though they see themselves as contemporary freedom fighters. Swartz’s crimes were against no one and were to the benefit of everyone. MIT remained silent and JSTOR did not press charges against him. The U.S. government, however, used him as an example, framing his information liberation actions as a story of a violent hacker whose radical acts are meant to destroy democracy.

Swartz became a tragic casualty of innovation. How do we move on? Danah Boyd has a few thoughts, that I think are appropriate for Snowden’s story as well:

What I really hope comes out of this horrible tragedy is some serious community reflection and a deep values check. Many of the beliefs that Aaron stood for – the liberation of knowledge, open access to information, and the use of code to make the world better – are core values in the geek community. If we want to achieve these values and goals, I don’t think that we’ll ever make a difference by creating more martyrs that can be used as examples in a cultural war. — Danah Boyd

Exploration of the technology spurred by surveillance and censorship

As I entered my 2nd year of grad school, I tried to pin down some of the areas of study I most drew me in. I was interested in governmental & organizational transparency, especially as it relates to the NSA & PRISM news from the summer. I also wanted understand how new types of civic engagement, activism & technology can directly affect (privacy) policy, and how companies create & change terms of references.

I wanted to explore different aspects of privacy, transparency, and public/private space, aiming to help people understand the real world implications of recent changes in governmental policy. Do people care about privacy? There is a huge gap between hard-core privacy & encryption hackers & academics, and people who don’t see or don’t mind the implications on their lives. Is it worth closing that gap?

What is the correlation between big organizations’ (Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, etc) values as an organization and their actions? What are their incentives towards acting responsibly towards their users? Are Transparency Reports doing the best they can to show governmental reach for user data? Can corporate reporting be improved and standardized?

I joined, a volunteer group that builds tools that react to breaking news regarding laws and issues prevalent to privacy. I also attended Circumvention Tech Summit organized by OpenITP, an organization that supports anti-surveillance & anti-censorship tools. Issues that Taskforce and CTS engages in are where more radical work is being done. Grassroots groups veer towards being decentralized, fast, skilled and not to mention passionate and tireless. Can their work lead to thoughtful changes in governmental policy?

Mapping out the entities involved in the governmental and organizational transparency space and how each relates to the others.

Circumvention Tech Community
I was fortunate to attend the Circumvention Tech Summit (CTS) in Berlin, Germany from September 29 to October 1, 2013. These events are designed to increase dialog and cooperation between privacy tool developers, community activists, journalists and other stakeholders interested in improving the tools and training available for circumventing Internet censorship and surveillance. The 2013 Berlin Summit focused on the following topics as they relate to circumvention technology: user interface and design, wireless mesh networking, and surveillance and censorship in Europe.

Blog Post — October 8, 2013
A Potential Thesis Research Plan
Circumvention Tech Summit in Berlin. I was able to focus on a community affected by security issues in different contexts and countries. There was a focus on China and Iran, as well as underlying concerns about the lack of good user experience in security and privacy tools.

Prototype — UX Guide for Circumvention Tech
With dozens of conversations privacy concious people, technologists, and security and privacy experts behind me, I designed and tested a prototype that might help technologists who build privacy tools make a more human-centered design decisions in their product. The prototype starts with a breakdown of common scenarios that human rights activists, journalists, and other vulnerable populations might face while doing their work. Based on the scenario, the prototype then presents possible user experience concepts & issues they could face. I would study how current privacy tools handle that particular UX challenge, and finally present best practices.

Wireframes for a platform that might help technologists who build privacy tools make a more human-centered design decisions in their product

Despite immersing myself in some of the tools and succeeding to getting support and time from OpenITP, I felt that I was getting further and further away from what drew me into this space in the first place — people affected by surveillance and their powerful stories, and closer to the improving the user experience of privacy and security technology. Ironically, my latest project has molded me into a UX leader in privacy and security concepts.  

Exploration of the language of surveillance and the people it affects

Mass surveillance is a tool for establishing and reinforcing asymmetrical power relations. It does this through collecting and withholding information, segmenting and classifying populations, and instilling fear and uncertainty. It is a tool that is regularly used against marginalized communities.

Beyond my focus on thesis, a movement against  surveillance was building in the country. Part of this movement, was Stop Watching Us, a protest effort against global surveillance that culminated in rallies on October 26, 2013. I joined in the protests in Washington D.C. Organizing is really hard. And, I came away learning that the language, messaging and tactics used both at the rally and the overall movement were overemphasizing policy and technology at the expense of shared principles and bringing to light the real impact surveillance has on people’s lifes.

Stop Watching Us rally in Washington D.C.

Blog Post — November 19, 2013
People Not Technology
A couple of weeks ago, I narrowed my thesis area to people affected by surveillance and the technology created in response to it. The demographic I focused on are human rights activists, journalists & marginalized communities, and the goal of improving the user experience of anti-surveillance technology which would enable them to do their work better and remain safer in affected countries.

Prototype — Surveillance Stories
By December 2013, my inquiry shifted to exploring how surveillance affects people from an emotional and psychological perspective.

Blog Post — December 16, 2013
Surveillance Stories
Surveillance Stories is an episodic web and audio project that highlights stories from people affected by surveillance culture. It surfaces first-hand accounts on the repercussions of surveillance culture on personal and professional life.

Blog Post — January 20, 2014
Thesis user experience
Going forward,my thesis needs address a handful of criteria to be successful for 3 audiences: viewers, storytellers and myself.

Blog Post — January 21, 2014
Exploring mediums
I’m likely to continue on the thesis path I’m on, but I see a few promising areas of investigation that will help me get there. I can start by exploring surveillance culture through different mediums: language, sound and public space. Combining the right mixture of the first two especially — language and sound — are critical to the clarity and accessibility of the stories.

Blog Post — January 25, 2014
Winter Break & Onwards
I’m likely to continue on the thesis path I’m on, but I see a few promising areas of investigation that will help me get there. I can start by exploring surveillance culture through different mediums: language, sound and public space. Combining the right mixture of the first two especially — language and sound — are critical to the clarity and accessibility of the stories.

Prototype — Open Whisper Systems and the language of privacy, security and surveillance
Focusing on the new content for the Open Whisper Systems’ website was an important exercise for me, since my aims with Surveillance Stories is to change the way surveillance culture is talked about in the media, and perceived by people. 

Blog Post — February 5, 2014
Open Whisper Systems
Over winter break, I spent one week with Open Whisper Systems, who make encrypted communication mobile apps. Would the stories that I plan to gather help Whisper Systems and other tech teams understand their users and emotional state better, leading to more user-centered tools? I worked on their communication strategy, branding and web site design.

Blog Post — February 13, 2014
Thesis Prototype Plan
Currently I’m primarily focused on research and gathering stories. Where are surveillance stories? What are they most often about? When people do decide to share their experience, what will they be most comfortable sharing? And so, I deliberately don’t have a preconceived idea of what the final output might be. Here are three ways that Surveillance Stories could reach the world, and the ideal experience(s) the project’s viewers should have.

Presenting the final concept at the School of Visual Arts Theater

Watch (or read the transcript of) my thesis presentation at Open IxD 2014.

Technical credits
Surveillance Stories was built on Foundation, a responsive front-end framework, HTML, CSS and Javascript. It uses Montserrat and Alegreya Sans from Google Fonts. All code is on Github. Deepest gratitude to Paul Ford and Yang Yang for their expertise, wisdom and encouragement through the thesis and development process.