Glencora Borradaile






         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

January 7, 2017

Teaching Communications Security and Social Movements

My reaction to the Snowden disclosures was a mix of “I’m not surprised” with “this is a lot worse than I imagined”.  Not long after, I went to a small workshop and during breaks tried to engage colleagues in discussing the implications of the capabilities of the surveillance state of which we were now at least partially aware.  Responses were at best disappointing.  The near-universal apathy was disturbing.  Most of the people I spoke with teach undergraduate computer science.  If they don’t care about the ethics of a surveillance system whose maintenance and expansion depend on our graduates, what hope would there be for change?

In thinking, “what more can I do from my highly privileged position?”, my partner and I have been teaching activists in social movements to use end-to-end encryption and other online self-defense techniques.  We’ve also designed a freshman course to teach online self-defense.  Since we are in particular concerned with the impact of state surveillance machinery on social movements, the course is offered through the Difference, Power and Discrimination (DPD) program at OSU and so addresses institutionalized systems of power, privilege, and inequity in the United States.  We will be teaching the technical concepts for understanding online surveillance and the encryption tools that can mitigate it alongside the historical and contemporary impacts that state surveillance has had on social movements.  The course will be offered for the first time this coming Spring — CS175: Communications Security and Social Movements.

From the reading that accompanied the development of this course and our trainings, it became clear that teaching CS175 through the DPD lens was a good move. Muslim populations in the US are subject to heightened surveillance, scrutiny, infiltration, provocation and entrapment.  The Department of Homeland Security monitors those involved with #BlackLivesMatter.  Historically, we know that surveillance is key to suppressing groups that challenge the state (for example, the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement) and the mass collection of data on targeted populations has facilitated genocide.  Mass surveillance doesn’t affect us all equally — mass surveillance is disproportionately directed at marginalized groups such as people of color.

To hear about this in our College’s new podcast, start listening here at 15:10.

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3 Comments

  1.   Kurt — January 8, 2017 @ 6:11 pm    

    That sounds like a great idea! Will the course materials for CS175 be available online? I’m sure having that information gathered together in one place would make a very useful resource for everyone.

    •   Glencora Borradaile — January 8, 2017 @ 7:28 pm    

      Yes, we will make all the course materials available online over the next 6 months. We are trying to rely on freely available materials as much as possible. I’ll aim to write a post at the end of Spring quarter to let my few readers know how it went.

  2.   Margaret — January 17, 2017 @ 2:43 pm    

    I agree with you. Computer Science folks sometimes talk about “technical debt”, which is doing technologically unmaintainable things that come back to haunt us. I think we in Computer Science have a large “social debt” to pay off. That is, we have made socially unmaintainable (or worse) things possible through our technological inventions. So, now it’s time to do whatever we can to pay off that social debt.

    There are some things only technologists can do to help solve the problems we have created for society, and what you’re doing with your new course is one example. Thanks for what you’re doing to help pay off our social debt.

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