“Peak indifference”: Cory Doctorow on surveillance in education

CoryIn 1989, the former “East Germany” had one informer for every sixty people. Now the NSA has the ability to “eavesdrop” on the whole planet, with one spy for every 10,000 people. This is the comparison given by activist, author, journalist and co-editor of Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow, when commenting on today’s ever-present surveillance. However, despite technology magnifying the power of the powerful, he contends he’s hopeful: “We haven’t yet reached peak surveillance, but we’ve certainly reached peak indifference to surveillance.”


By Annika Burgess


Doctorow is a long-time activist for our rights in the digital world; he’s the former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and co-founder of the UK Open Rights Group. Along with the EFF he has been leading the fight against Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies – the digital locks that prevent us from controlling the media and devices we own (anything from cars to insulin pumps, phones, and TVs). As the laws that protect DRM not only prevent users from tampering with their own property but also stop the disclosure of flaws that can harm you, the EFF says DRM “…threatens users’ security and privacy, distorts markets, confiscates public rights and undermines innovation.”


What Doctorow says he’s most interested in talking about today is the relationship between digital locks, security and the Internet of Things (IoT) – how we can prevent the IoT from becoming a tool of mass surveillance. At OEB 2015, Doctorow will address these issues with a global audience of edtech learning and training professionals. Because it’s in education, he says, where this has been normalised, and users (the students) have become particularly vulnerable


“In the educational domain we see a lot of normalisation of designing computers so that their users can’t override them. For example, school supplied laptops can be designed so that educators can monitor what their users are doing. If a school board loses control of their own security or they have bad employees, there’s nothing students can do. They are completely helpless because their machines are designed to prevent them from doing anything.”


He gave the disconcerting example of a US school in Pennsylvania’s wealthy Lower Merion School District, where in 2010 educators were caught spying on students and their families in private situations, using web cams installed in pupil laptops.


“We have this path of surveillance that starts with prisoners, then mental patients, refugees, students, benefits claimants, blue collar workers and then white collar workers. That’s the migration path for surveillance and students are really low in the curve. People who work in education are very close to the front lines of the legitimisation of surveillance and designing computers to control their users rather than being controlled by users,” Doctorow says.


Surveillance in education can also interfere with the educational process, he says, because “nobody wants to be seen fumbling. When you are still learning, you don’t want to feel like you are being watched and judged.” Doctorow adds that, due to their lack of power, students have limited options to take control of their learning and the digital tools they use.


“I talk to students, often younger students, who say they don’t worry about surveillance because they know how to block it out; they use a proxy or something else. But, first of all, those students can get in a lot of trouble for it. In America, they could actually be committing a crime and they could go to jail for it. It also doesn’t solve the overall problem; it only solves it for them. So I’ve often said to students that rather than breaking the rules, they document the absurdity of the rules and demand that adults account for it.”


For example, Doctorow says students should address the use of content-control software (a.k.a “censorware”) in schools that not only blocks bad content but also content that can be useful. There’s also the issue of who provides the censorware software and where the data and information sourced from that software goes. Because you can’t block a site without monitoring someone’s usage, censorship also involves a type of surveillance.


“The censorware companies mostly work in the Middle East in repressive regimes who buy it on a mass scale to try to control the flow of information in their countries. Students should contact journalists, the school board and the parents’ association and ask why they are giving money that was meant to be for their education to war criminals who spy on us.”


Looking at how deeply ingrained surveillance has become, and how technology will continue to leave us open to vulnerability, it’s difficult to see where society can go from here to reclaim privacy. Doctorow says, however, that technology has also given us the ability to network and participate like never before, and that there are things that we can do to change our situation; “it’s not a foregone conclusion.”


He adds: “Up until the Snowden era, anybody who worried about online privacy was already pretty technical. As a result, online privacy tools tended to assume a certain level of technical proficiency and they were notoriously hard to use. But that’s changed, and there are more and more people every day who care about this stuff. There are also non-profit and for profit companies that are working on figuring out ways to make this more accessible to normal people,” he says.


“I would say that we haven’t reached peak surveillance but we’ve reached peak indifference to surveillance. There’s never going to be a time when fewer people care about this. Privacy advocates have spent the last twenty years trying to get people to care about privacy, but we’ve failed at it. Now between Ashley Madison and the Office of Personnel Management and the giant credit card breaches, the job of getting people to care about privacy has been done for us. Now we have the comparatively simple job of convincing people who are worried about privacy to use good tools […] so I feel neither optimistic nor pessimistic but rather hopeful.”


Cory Doctorow will give his persuasive and potent opinions in a keynote speech during the Opening Plenary session of OEB 2015 – the global, cross-sector conference on technology supported learning and training (Berlin, 2 – 4 December). Find out more at: https://oeb.global


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