Ted Fickes

Editor, writer and strategist

Here at the Mobilisation Lab we’re big supporters of Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), the annual event put on by Personal Democracy Media that brings together activists, analysts, journalists, organizers, policymakers, thought leaders and others to discuss the intersection of policy and politics. This year’s PDF is happening June 5-6, 2014, and we’ll be there. We decided to talk with some of this year’s panelists and speakers about their work and thoughts about issues affecting global campaigners now and in the year ahead.

Our first conversation is with Shauna Dillavou, Co-Founder and Executive Director of CommunityRED, an organization working to improve the security of journalists, activists and citizen reporters in conflict zones and improve the human element of new and existing digital security tools through community building and training. And, in the spirit of secure communications, we spoke with Shauna using Jitsi, a new open-source, fully encrypted online conferencing and calling app.

At PDF, Shauna is participating in a panel on frontline technology for anti-censorship and anti-surveillance that will explore obstacles preventing people from adapting security measures by highlighting case studies from their work, the issues facing the open-source community developing tools, and discuss the future of digital security.

Tell us a little bit about the mission of CommunityRED and how it works with campaigners and organizers.

My background is in tech and national security. Over time I realized that censorship and surveillance problems are human, not just software, issues. CommunityRED puts secure and private communications in the mind and hands of people by training frontline defenders, teaching regular people about security, and basically meeting people where they are. We take a human approach rather than just a technological approach so that people get why security is important and also have the ability to use security tools.

Can you give an example or have a personal story to share of security concerns/privacy intrusions that have impacted the ability to organize and inform people?

Sure. We worked with GlobalZero, an international NGO working to eliminate nuclear weapons. Global Zero has partners in Pakistan who can get in deep trouble simply by communicating with them. Global Zero doesn’t want to put people at risk just by associating with them so security issues are very real to them.

We are also working with a group, Arzuw, that helps youth from Turkmenistan attend college. For most Turkmen students, college means leaving the country for school and that turns them into targets of state surveillance and puts their families at risk when communicating with the students. We have been meeting with Turkmen students to understand their situation, teach them what security looks like, how it works, and how to recognize the threat.

These are all very different cases with different types of people in different parts of the world. There is no one technology that can help here. It takes time to understand the threats people face, how they communicate and what they can handle but the human approach is needed if technology is to help.

How can organizations and campaigners working on other issues better engage in this?

It’s hard. Explaining why privacy and security are important is difficult. Groups and people don’t have much time and it’s hard to take the time to learn this stuff. In part, this is a question of urgency and as a community we’re working on the messaging. This is why, so far, we’ve primarily focused on working with frontline folks that know they need privacy/security help—journalists, citizen journalists, and activists in places that are blowing up.

​What responsibilities do larger NGOs like Greenpeace have here to help support and protect activists, especially when brands like Greenpeace are targets themselves in many places?

This is similar to what we talked about with Global Zero – Derek Johnson, the organization’s executive director, approached me with a really proactive attitude. He wanted to make sure that they did no harm while doing their work. They have begun to take steps to be more secure in their communications, to walk the talk, as they say.

If you were to sit down with Greenpeace or a similar organization to work on these issues what would you want to find out from them?

The biggest challenge groups face is that they don’t engage end users and know how people in the field work. We want to engage end users. We may ask 20-30 questions about what they do, how they do it, how they use technology, what’s important to them, who they communicate with, and so on.

We also want to rely on the expertise of the group in building awareness around their issues. They know how their audience, their people respond so we want to build on that to develop campaigns and messages that work for their situation, their audience.

Do you have a key goal for PDF? Is there a key message or action to take that you want to share?

Well, I’m hoping to spread the word that tinfoil hats are not just for the paranoid. I want to get people fired up about safety and privacy and get away from the jargon. My colleague Bryan Nunez likes to point out that Americans feel so entitled about so many things but why doesn’t that sense of outrage and entitlement extend to our data – and who’s making money off of it?

I’ll also be talking about “circumvention tech” – the ability to speak about these issues in regular, human-friendly ways but still get to the technology.

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