Forum — From the February 2017 issue

Trump: A Resister’s Guide

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 11 of 11 )

Letter to Silicon Valley

By Kate Crawford

Dear Technologists:

For the past decade, you’ve told us that your products will change the world, and indeed they have. We carry tiny networked computers with us everywhere, we control “smart” home appliances at a remove, we communicate with our friends and family over online platforms, and now we are all part of the vast Muslim registry known as Facebook. Almost 80 percent of American internet users belong to the social network, and many of them happily offer up their religious affiliation. The faith of those who don’t, too, can be easily deduced with a little data-science magic; in 2013, a Cambridge University study accurately detected Muslims 82 percent of the time, using only their Facebook likes. The industry has only become better at individual targeting since then.

You’ve created simple, elegant tools that allow us to disseminate news in real time. Twitter, for example, is very good at this. It’s also a prodigious disinformation machine. Trolls, fake news, and hate speech thrived on the platform during the presidential campaign, and they show few signs of disappearing now. Twitter has likewise made it easier to efficiently map the networks of activists and political dissenters. For every proud hashtag — #BlackLivesMatter, #ShoutYourAbortion, the anti-deportation campaign #Not1More — there are data sets that reveal the identities of the “influencers” and “joiners” and offer a means of tracking, harassing, and silencing them.

HA037__2VP70-1Advertisers, meanwhile, have developed precise algorithms to understand our tastes and desires. These algorithms are used for everything from determining the demographic most interested in pumpkin-spice lattes to setting a driver’s car-insurance rate on the basis of how many exclamation marks they use. Combined with Twitter data, these tools can be deployed to identify and round up political organizers — a prospect of particular concern under a president who has suggested that protesters should be imprisoned and said that he would direct his attorney general to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement.

The data trails required to build a list of dissenters already exist; they are public and permanent. Past comments that had seemed ephemeral will haunt the future. Our search queries, posts, and hashtags will become the most brutal of informants.

You’re working on other tools already. Machine-learning techniques are being tested for use in predictive policing, in the criminal-justice system, and in tracking refugee populations around the world. What will you do if you are asked to modify your new facial-recognition app so that it can help identify and incarcerate undocumented people? Or if your community-mapping tool is acquired by a security company that apprehends activists? Or if the Series A–funded drone service that you designed to deliver packages is offered a government contract to patrol the border? After all, what need is there for a brick-and-mortar wall to separate us from Mexico when a GPS-enabled drone zone with high-resolution cameras and tear gas can do the job? It’s a short, slippery slope from disruptive innovation to the panoptic police force in the sky.

You may intend to resist, but some requests will leave little room for refusal. Last year, the U.S. government forced Yahoo to scan all its customers’ incoming emails, allegedly to find a set of characters that were related to terrorist activity. Tracking emails is just the beginning, of course, and the FBI knows it. The most important encryption case to date hinged on the FBI’s demand that Apple create a bespoke operating system that would allow the government to intentionally undermine user security whenever it impeded an investigation. Apple won the fight, but that was when Obama was in office. Trump’s regime may pressure the technology sector to create back doors in all its products, widen surveillance, and weaken the security of every networked phone, vehicle, and thermostat.

There is precedent for technology companies assisting authoritarian regimes. In 1880, after watching a train conductor punch tickets, Herman Hollerith, a young employee of the U.S. Census Bureau, was inspired to design a punch-card system to catalogue human traits. The Hollerith Machine was used in the 1890 census to tabulate markers such as race, literacy level, gender, and country of origin. During the 1930s, the Third Reich used the same system, under the direction of a German subsidiary of International Business Machines, to identify Jews and other ethnic groups. Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s first president, received a medal from Hitler for his services. As Edwin Black recounts in IBM and the Holocaust, there was both profit and glory to be had in providing the computational services for rounding up the state’s undesirables. Within the decade, IBM served as the information subcontractor for the U.S. government’s Japanese-internment camps.

With this history in mind, we must all ask ourselves what we will and will not do. Ginni Rometty, the current CEO of IBM, was the first to make her position clear, in an open letter in which she congratulated Trump on his victory and offered to “work together to achieve prosperity.” Peter Thiel, the chairman of Palantir and a board member of Facebook, offered advice, as well as his own employees’ time, to assist the president-elect on defense. Many leading technology CEOs were summoned to Trump Tower, and duly attended. Not everyone has been so quick to cooperate, though. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter — who was not invited — swore to use his position to speak truth to power and to work for the common good. Such statements may be easier made than maintained, but it’s wise to articulate your convictions before the ground begins to shift.

We, the subjects of your data dominions, have limited options. If we’ve used your services, a record of our personal and political behavior is already yours. Yes, we can download Signal, an app that offers better security for phone messaging. We can use Tor, a browser that allows people to search the web and chat anonymously. But our actions as individuals aren’t sufficient to protect us from the vast turnkey surveillance system that the Trump Administration will inherit. So you, too, have a job to do.

One step is to provide end-to-end encryption in as many of your services as possible. WhatsApp has done so, and the feature has become a selling point. The creators of Signal have gone a step further, collecting only the minimum data necessary to operate. When the company was served a government order last year, it could hand over no more than the dates people had joined the service and the dates they last used it. The case is a reminder of the risks created by the current practice of storing all possible data — the risks for you and for us. Particularly dangerous is the information that people have deleted and believe to be gone; you know that sometimes it remains.

HA038__2VP70-1None of these choices will be easy: technically, economically, ethically. It is difficult to take a public stand, and it can come at a cost. Yet the decisions made by individual engineers and developers matter. An IBM employee has already quit in response to the company’s support of the Trump Administration. And some tech workers have signed a public pledge to refuse to build tools that could be used to assist mass deportation. If this gesture seems small, it’s worth remembering that back in the early 1940s, when everything looked hopeless, the Resistance leader René Carmille sabotaged the Hollerith infrastructure in occupied France by leaving the eleventh column of the punch cards, which indicated Jewish identity, blank. Carmille has been described as one of the first ethical hackers.

You, the software engineers and leaders of technology companies, face an enormous responsibility. You know better than anyone how best to protect the millions who have entrusted you with their data, and your knowledge gives you real power as civic actors. If you want to transform the world for the better, here is your moment. Inquire about how a platform will be used. Encrypt as much as you can. Oppose the type of data analysis that predicts people’s orientation, religion, and political preferences if they did not willingly offer that information. Reduce the quantity of personal information that is kept. And when the unreasonable demands come, the demands that would put activists, lawyers, journalists, and entire communities at risk, resist wherever you can. History also keeps a file.

Previous Page Next Page
11 of 11

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


September 2018

The Deportation Racket

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Told Us Not To Say This

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.