The key objective of the research project is to shed light on the practice of using VPN as a data anonymization tool in Eastern Africa, by both individual users and for non-profit organizations (NPO).
By Vasilis Ververis, DATACTIVE
Magma aims to build a scalable, reproducible, standard methodology on measuring, documenting and circumventing internet censorship, information controls, internet blackouts and surveillance in a way that will be streamlined and used in practice by researchers, front-line activists, field-workers, human rights defenders, organizations and journalists.
In recent years, a number of research fellows, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers as well as a larger research community, have been working in high-risk contexts, which creates the need to consider their qualitative and quantitative research data as highly sensitive. Albeit their competitiveness and high qualification in their respective areas (social and political science, usability, law, political economy analysis), they can rarely claim to have a specific expertise or extensive experience when it comes to networks services and systems, telecommunication infrastructure, applied data analysis of network measurements, internet censorship, surveillance and information controls.
Ideally, researchers working with various network measurement tools and frameworks such as the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), should have qualified technical help and assistance, thus enabling them to develop appropriate testing methodologies, suiting exactly their research environment and needs.
Magma aims to build a research framework for people working on information controls and network measurements, facilitating their working process in numerous ways. As such, this framework will enable them to properly structure an activity plan, make informed choices regarding the required tools (including ethical and security aspects) and analyze the data produced by such tools.
Through Magma, we wish to provide our expertise and experience in network measurements, internet censorship research, assessment of ISP network, surveillance probing and data analysis in order to:
- Asses the risks by providing, implementing and maintaining technologies demanded by researchers on front-lines and areas where the need of operational security, anti-surveillance and censorship circumvention is of paramount importance.
- Provide tailored technical assistance, developing at the same time appropriate testing methodology for network measurements, evaluation and analysis of data and reports that correspond to the respective research questions.
- On a long-term basis, build a scalable and reproducible methodology for collecting, evaluating and analyzing data and reports’ self-defense for front-line researchers, front-line activists, field-workers, human rights defenders, organizations and journalists, by keeping exact documentation.
Below, we list some examples of potential future research around internet censorship, information controls and surveillance, mainly based on conducting networks measurements and analyzing its results:
A study on Tor network and media websites blockages, network bandwidth throttling and malicious network packet injections that contained malware and advertising content.
A study to determine how WhatsApp has been blocked after a judge’s court order all over the country of Brazil.
An extensive large scale research analyzing the policies and techniques used to block content deemed illegal by a state identifying transparency problems, collateral damage and the implications of over or under blocking.
A study on a non-malicious technical issue that leads to the interference and non-accessibility of a regional news media outlet throughout several different networks and countries.
To this respect, we would like to hear from all of you who are interested in researching information controls and internet censorship, and are intrigued to better understand how to work with network measurements and analyze data from various data sources and OONI reports.
We wanted to keep this post as concrete and terse as possible to encourage both technical and non-technical entities and individuals to get in touch with us, even if they are currently engaged in an undergoing project. The results of this collaboration will help form a complete guideline handbook expressed by the needs of the communities that work, or conduct research, in this field.
Please use any of these communications channels to get in touch with us.
Vasilis Ververis is a research associate with DATACTIVE and a practitioner of the principles ~ undo / rebuild ~ the current centralization model of the internet. Their research deals with internet censorship and investigation of collateral damage via information controls and surveillance. Some recent affiliations: Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany; Universidade Estadual do Piaui, Brazil; University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal.
This post is co-published with the Magma Project
2018 has been a good year for DATACTIVE. We take the opportunity of the turn of the year to review what we accomplished and what remains to do.
With less than two years to the end of the grant, we will now dedicate ourselves primarily to data analysis and writing. ALEX will keep some of us busy, and will allow us to expand our team hiring a couple of developers and collaborating with NGOs. To start with, next week we will seize the opportunity of the forthcoming of the Digital Methods Winter School to advance with software development. We can anticipate we will use the forthcoming EU Parliament election as one of our test cases, so if you are interested in collaborating to a research on the effects of algorithmic personalisation please get in touch.
By Anna Berti Suman – Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT)
During the Workshop ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’, we discussed how the ‘South’ is much more than a geographical connotation. The South exists every time a person is discriminated, basic services are denied, surveillance is secretly performed at the expenses of those at the margins, land, but also data, are grabbed for the sake of profit, people are forced to daily live with environmental contamination, and so on. In this sense, maybe the South is not geographical at all, if we think that all these situations can well occur in the North as in the South of the world. This contribution tells a story ‘from the South’: the South of Italy (yet a country generally considered as part of ‘the North’), and a situation embedding the South through denial of rights and resource appropriation. But it also tells a story of hope, of civic resistance that can make a change, speaking to individuals, collectives, and even to institutions, with a tireless critique of the status-quo.
The case is that of ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’ (in Italian ‘Analizziamo la Basilicata’), founded in 2015 by the Italian association ‘COVA Contro’ and aimed at tackling the environmental mismanagements in a Southern Italian region, Basilicata, known for having a 40% of the population at risk of poverty. The region is also sadly known as “the Italian Texas” for the intense oil exploitation and its incidence on local residents. The ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’ initiative started as a campaign and quickly obtained a vast social uptake, manifested in the generous financial support from concerned citizens. Through crowdfunding, AnalyzeBasilicata managed to buy the necessary instruments to collect sample in numerous areas of the region and run chemical tests at the premises of Accredia, the Italian single body for scientific accreditation. The results of the test fuelled investigations that were subsequently published on the online magazine Basilicata24. The initiative currently strives to make publicly accessible the data from the measurements on its website as well as the sources of funding to support such measurements. In addition, the organization has barely any organizational structure, devoting all the resources obtained from crowd-funding to the measurements.
The collective’s workflow is structured as follow: when the AnalyzeBasilicata team identify an environmental problem, they run a cross-check or alterative measuring on the interested area; if they find a discrepancy between the official data and their measurements, they either first publish the news on their blog and then file a formal notification to the competent environmental agency or to the public prosecutor office, or, in alternative, they first notify the problem to the relevant institutions and then reach the public. The choice of one or the other strategy depends on the matter at issue, its sensitivity and public concern. In general, the response from the concerned citizens is higher than the interest and follow-up from the responsible institutions . The collective works either spontaneously or in response to a request from a group of concerned citizens. Rarely, they are approached by institutions requesting measurements . The individuals running the tests are, for the majority, not experts in environmental monitoring. However, they trained themselves, and benefit from the help of experts on how to collect sampling and analyse data .
Examples of the actions launched by the COVA Contro Association and AnalyzeBasilicata regard to the correlation between the ENI and INGV extractive operations in the region and the seismic status of Val d’Agri, Basilicata. The collective interestingly mentioned the Aarhus Convention when denouncing the lack of transparency and public participation on the matter to the Italian environmental protection agency, ISPRA, to the Italian anti-corruption agency, ANAC, to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and to the National Anti-Mafia Directorate. The reliance of the local collective’s discourse on entitlements deriving from an international legal body is particularly relevant as it demonstrates how the local needs to ‘rely on the global’ to strengthen its arguments, yet resting strongly grounded in the local dimension.
Another timely intervention of the collective is represented by the analysis performed in the area of Policoro, Basilicata, where the civic monitoring, originally looking for traces of trihalomethanes in drinking water (which were instead found under threshold), discovered traces of two halogenated compounds that are recognized to have carcinogenic effects. The tests were run as cross-check of those performed by the competent authorities. The organization lamented the unfulfilled duty of public authorities to ensure that drinking water are preserved free from pollutants, thus including not only the substances provided by the Italian legislative decree 31/2001 but all substances possibly noxious to human health. This way the collective showed to be aware of the legal framework and to ground its claim on institutionally recognized legal entitlements, partially covered by the right to live in a healthy environment. The organization demanded a legal intervention by asking for the definition of clear maximum thresholds for the presence of the toxic carcinogenic compounds in drinking water. This approach is also particularly noteworthy as it shows that civic resistance still need to ‘use’ the system, while resisting it, and the appeal to legal provisions seems a way to find a form of recognition in the establishment.
The founder of AnalyzeBasilicata, Giorgio Santoriello , affirmed that the trigger for the launch of the initiative was the distrust towards the data provided (often scarce or difficult to access) by the environmental agency responsible for the territory. Santoriello described how the agency was unequipped and lacking personnel. From a first stage of ‘shadowing’ what the agency was doing to monitor the environmental conditions of the area, they started performing the monitoring themselves, comparing the two and identifying discrepancies. The first accreditation, according to Santoriello, was the social support from the concerned citizens through financial support and follow-up on media. Despite being critical towards the established way of environmental monitoring in Basilicata, the collective has always been willing to cooperate with the prosecutor offices, environmental agencies and politicians to shed light on the malfunctions of the environmental governance system in the region. This ‘open’ approach is also worth of reflection: the collective challenges the system, but it is ready to engage in a dialogue with established institutions in view of the ultimate goal, i.e. the improvement of environmental protection in Basilicata.
Despite relying on legal norms, Santoriello seemed to suggest that the laws on transparency and public accountability, as well as those on civic access to environmental information and participation in environmental decision-making, are insufficient to concretely enforce citizens’ rights. First, they would be too soft, not providing for actual sanctions. Second, their enforcement in courts would require high financial resources that often citizens’ organizations lack. Thirdly, they are often applicable only in cases of plain violations, and not in the daily subtler instances of citizen’s misinformation or of inaccessible information. Santoriello identifies in citizen-run technologies a light of hope to tackle the problem of poor environmental monitoring or hidden environmental data. He considers nowadays more pressing than in the past the need to use technology to draw the link between environmental pollutants and human health. Santoriello stresses the centrality of having ‘doubting’ citizens that crosscheck the environmental information received as a way to improve environmental monitoring, to ensure the respect of fundamental rights and to promote accountability.
Overall, this accountability outcome seems resulting of a combination of the following elements: distrust towards environmental (mis)management generates a civic initiative based on citizen-run technologies; the collective gains credibility (activists obtain scientific accreditation for their measurements); by cross-checking institutional data, the group manages to demonstrate substantial deviation from a proper environmental management; the collective obtains attention of larger sections of society; they justify their actions based on norms but simultaneously discard them; ultimately, though just a ‘drop in the ocean’, a push towards more transparency and accountability is activated.
Anna Berti Suman – is a PhD researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (The Netherlands), investigating forms of environmental monitoring ‘from below’. Anna has work and research experience in environmental crimes (Ecuador) and water conflicts (Chile); Anna is pro-bono environmental lawyer for Greenpeace International.
You can reach her at: email@example.com
 Call performed on September 24, 2018, with the founder of ‘AnalyzeBasilicata’, Giorgio Santoriello.
What are the challenges and opportunities of studying big data in the Global South? @lauramahrenbach and @katjamat examine the policy visions of big data in #Brazil, #India and #China and how we can improve understanding of them
In late September, I gave a talk in which she considered the connections between Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and data activism at the ‘DIGITAL CULTURES: Knowledge / Culture / Technology’ conference at Leuphana University Lüneburg. The presentation asked how OSINT might be understood through the prism of ‘data activist epistemologies’ (Milan and Van der Velden 2016).
The starting point for this interrogation is that Open Source Intelligence, despite its name, appears to have little in common with ‘open source’ cultures as we know them, for example through open source technologies. Open Source Intelligence simply means intelligence, for states or businesses, that is gathered from ‘open’ or publicly available sources. The initial question in the paper is, thus, one of terminology: What is really ‘open source’ about OSINT? And how might a critical interrogation of ‘open source’ change the way we think about OSINT? Hence the title of the talk: ‘Open Sourcing Open Source Intelligence’.
As a type of data activism, open source can be described as having its associated ‘epistemic culture’. This is a concept which refers to the diversity in modes of knowledge-making. ‘Epistemic culture’ originally comes from studies into scientific practices, and it directs attention to the ‘specific strategies that generate, validate, and communicate scientific accomplishments’ (Knorr-Cetina and Reichmann 2015, 873). It guides one’s focus toward the complex ‘relationships between experts, organisational formats, and epistemic objects’ (ibid. 873-4).
What we encounter in open source cultures is that knowledge is not legitimated institutionally, but technologically: the (open source) software function as a token of trust. The knowledge is legitimated because the software and the verification model can be reviewed, the methods are shared publicly, many of the findings are publicly shared, public learning is crucial and, ideally, expertise thus becomes distributed.
Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), by contrast, is a practice that seems to belong to – and to be legitimated by – formal and relatively closed institutions such as intelligence agencies. Yet the label can usefully be reclaimed to describe activist projects – such as the Syrian Archive – which seek to put open source tools and principles in the service of a different kind of knowledge-making, one that is genuinely public-oriented and collective. The question thus becomes: What can we learn from the interface between OSINT and open source? What kind of knowledge is being made, how? And how might activist forms of OSINT inform our understanding of data activism broadly speaking?
Stay tuned for the forthcoming paper, which is being co-authored with Jeff Deutch from the Syrian Archive. It will no doubt be enriched by a good discussion with the conference audience.
The abstract for the talk is available through the full conference programme (pp. 215-6).
Lonneke van der Velden is postdoctoral researcher with DATACTIVE and a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with internet surveillance and activism. She is part of the editorial board of Krisis, Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, and is on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.
Knorr Cetina, Karin, and Werner Reichmann (2015) Epistemic cultures, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. James D. Wright. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 873-880.
Milan, Stefania, and Lonneke Van der Velden (2016) The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society 2(2) pp. 57-74.
On 26 October, DATACTIVE hosts the philosopher and science studies scholar Noortje Marres to discuss and problematize the role of social science today. The DATACTIVE team will engage with Marres to discuss chapters of her book Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research. The exchange is expected to delve into the social sciences from various perspectives derived from team members’ research fields, and will be anchored in the contemporary challenges to digital societies and beyond.
Marres is Associate Professor in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick and sits in the advisory board of DATACTIVE. Currently, she is a Visiting Professor in the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Leiden. Her work is located in the interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology and Society (STS).
by Lonneke van der Velden
Last month, I was invited to be a respondent (together with Harriet Bergman) for the launch of Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter’s latest book, Organization After Social Media. The book is a collection of essays which re-interrogate the concerns and contributions of social movements and counter-cultural collectives in light of a significant contemporary problem: the existence of tech-monopolies such as Google and Facebook.
If social media cannot deliver on their promise to help collectives organize, how then should movements proceed? How to make such movements sustainable? The authors invite us to reflect on these issues through central concept of ‘organized networks’, or ‘orgnets’.
I liked many aspects of the book, but will highlight here two things I found interesting from the perspective of DATACTIVE’s own concerns. The first has to do with a re-evaluation of encryption, and the second with where we search for historical and theoretical lessons to help us organize ‘after social media’.
One thing I read in the book is a re-evaluation of encryption. Encryption is presented, not as an individual intervention, but as an intervention with a potential to allow for the emergence of collective forms. “The trick,” the authors tell us, “is to achieve a form of collective invisibility without having to reconstitute authority” (p. 5).
I think this collective potential of encryption is interesting. Research into activism in the UK after the Snowden revelations (Dencik, Hintz & Cable 2016) showed that digital rights groups tended to operate in a rather specialized space demarcated from issues championed by other groups and organizations. Digital rights organizations speak about privacy and freedom of speech, but hardly touch upon other social issues. And vice versa: organizations that work on, for instance, social justice issues, tend to regard digital rights as a working package for those specific NGOs that are dedicated to privacy. Encryption does not feature as a strategy that is part of their activist work. This has only partly to do with a lack of knowledge. What’s more, activists told the researchers that they want to do things in public, and using encryption is associated with having something to hide. This is a reductive summary of some of the findings by Dencik and others, but the study provides food for thought about how encryption is often precipitated.
What Lovink and Rossiter’s book nicely does is show that this is not the only possible way to conceive of encryption, opening up a different interpretation. Not one that stages privacy or security, which is a discourse about protection, but one that forefronts organized unpredictability, which is a more productive discourse about what encryption has to offer in terms of collective organization. This idea might be more interesting for activist groups; that is, if they are not interested in hiding, they might well want to remain unsuspected and surprising.
Against the background of the analysis that social media and algorithms make people readable and predictable, infrastructures that help organize unpredictability become important. In fact, from the discussion that followed with the authors during the book launch, it turned out that many of the concerns in the book relate to organizing unpredictability: merging the inventive (as exemplified by tactical media) with a wish for sustainability. How to build digital infrastructures that allow for the disruptive qualities that tactical media had in the past?
Some questions remain. Technologies of encryption are not infrastructures that can emerge out of the blue: they in turn need organized networks and communal work to remain up to date. Together with the audience at the book launch, we had an interesting back and forth about whether a notion of ‘community’, and community struggles, was needed.
Realizing organized networks
Another thing we talked about that evening was the tension between organized networks as a concept and as actually-existing practices. As the authors write: “Organized networks are out there. They exist. But they should still be read as a proposal. This is why we emphasize the design element. Please come on board to collectively define what orgnets could be all about.” (p. 16)
Hence, the authors invite anyone who has been part of an organized network, or thinks that he or she had been part of one, or wished that their network had been more organized, to ‘fill in’ their core concept. That means that much is left open in the book to the inventive powers of orgnet-organizers.
Technological infrastructures are an exception: the book is quite prescriptive in this regard, arguing for example that servers should not be centralized, and that we should prevent the emergence of tech-giants and develop alternative protocols and new spaces for action.
I could not help but wonder about the other kinds of prescription that are not so present in the book. Might we also offer prescriptive accounts in respect to things social movements experience over and over again, such as burnouts, internal strife, sexual harassment, and all things that hinder the sustainability of networks? And shouldn’t we reach out for documentation from, say, social movement studies or feminist histories, in addition to media theory? I am thinking about these in echo of Kersti’s and others’ discussion around community and critical community studies.
All in all, given that the focus of Lovink and Rossiter’s book is on forms of organization ‘after social media’, the choice of focusing on (alternative) socio-technical infrastructures is as understandable as it is valuable in itself. Indeed, it is an issue our research group cares about a lot; we hope to contribute to some of the causes laid out in the book.
Lonneke van der Velden is a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with conceptualizations of internet surveillance and internet activism. She is also on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.
Dencik, Lina, Arne Hintz, and Jonathan Cable. 2016. “Towards Data Justice? The Ambiguity of Anti-Surveillance Resistance in Political Activism.” Big Data & Society 3 (2): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951716679678.
Rossiter, Ned, and Geert Lovink. Organization after Social Media. Minor Compositions, 2018.
DATACTIVE joins WOinActie’s week of protest and wants to publicly manifest its support to the struggle of students and staff.
We stand against budget cuts, overwhelming workloads, and the neoliberalization of education.
We demand adequate funding, less pressure on teachers and students and a model of university that privileges critical thinking over profit making.
In October 2018, the Amsterdam Privacy Conference (APC) will be back at the University of Amsterdam. Two DATACTIVE project team members, Stefania (Principal Investigator), and Becky (PhD candidate), enthusiastically supported the conference as coordinators of the ‘Digital Society and Surveillance’ theme. The Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University submitted a panel proposal, which was successfully included. Regretfully, neither will take part in the conference: DATACTIVE and the Data Justice Lab have decided to withdraw over the participation of the US-based software company Palantir as one of the APC’s Platinum Sponsors.
Our decision to withdraw stems from an active refusal to legitimize companies accused of enabling human rights abuses, and a concern with the lack of transparency surrounding sponsorship.
Palantir is a company specializing in big data analytics, which develops technologies for the military, law enforcement and border control. The deployment of Palantir’s technologies has raised wide-spread concern among civil liberties and human rights advocates. Reporting shows that, in the United States, Palantir has played an important role in enabling the efforts of the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to identify, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. This has resulted in the indefinite detention of thousands of children who have been separated from their parents. This indefensible policy has come under strong criticism from the United Nations and prompted an alliance of technology workers and affected communities, to call – so far, unsuccessfully – for Palantir to cancel its contracts with ICE.
We feel that providing Palantir with a platform, as a sponsor of a prominent academic conference on privacy, significantly undermines efforts to resist the deployment of military-grade surveillance against migrants and marginalized communities already affected by abusive policing.
Because we have organized conferences ourselves, we believe transparency in sponsorship agreements is key. While we praise the APC organizing committee forcommitting to full transparency, we were not informed of sponsorship agreements until the very last minute. The APC Sponsors page, in addition, was only populated after the participant registration deadline. As conference coordinators and prospective participants, we feel that we were not given the chance to make an informed choice about our contribution.
Sponsorship concerns are not a new issue: the very same controversy, around the involvement of this very same company (as well as others), emerged during the 2015 edition of APC. Though we acknowledge the complexity of corporate sponsorship, we note that other prominent tech policy conferences, such as Computers, Privacy and Data Protection (CPDP) conference, have recently stopped accepting sponsorship from Palantir. We thus believe this is a good moment for a larger discussion about how conferences should be organized in the future.
Academia—and especially publicly-funded universities—need to consider their role in efforts to neutralize or undermine human rights concerns. Such considerations are particularly pertinent in the context of what has been described as the increased neoliberalization of higher education, in which there is significant pressure to attract and pursue funding from different sources. As academics and as citizens, we will increasingly be asked to make choices of this kind. Hence, we believe it is time to set down a clear set of principles for sponsorship going forward.
Amsterdam and Cardiff, 19 September 2018
Stefania Milan and Becky Kazansky (DATACTIVE) & Lina Dencik, Arne Hintz, Joanna Redden, Fieke Jansen (Data Justice Lab)