Surveillance, Security, and Privacy, Part 2: When Trolls Come Knocking

It started as a niggling thought in the back of my mind…but it has since grown to a scale at which I can see the train wreck coming.

Increasingly for women, people of color, LGBTQIA, and socio-political commentators, the process of research and presentation involves learning how to create a buffer between yourself and a sometimes hostile public. The 2014 Gamergate harassment campaigns made the problem of misogynistic and racist backlash abundantly clear. During these campaigns largely white, largely male internet users targeted women gamers, game developers, journalists, and feminist critics including Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn for extensive physical, emotional, and psychological violence. These women were slandered, hacked, “doxxed” (their private information was put online), sent death threats, encouraged to commit suicide, and “swatted” (SWAT burst into their homes to resolve a fake emergency). Since Gamergate, similar harassment campaigns have targeted wider swathes of people. In the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, a Canadian Sikh man was photo-shopped with an explosive vest and Quran and captioned as “one of the terrorists.” In 2017 internet trolls harassed Google employees concerned about diversity practices after their individual names were posted online. Visitors to our own campus have experienced abuse at the hands of alt-right and Neo-Nazi internet users upset with their scholarship on media politics.

I am a young, female, civilian scholar in the overwhelmingly male, decidedly militarized, and highly charged arena of counterterrorism and disaster politics. And what I have to say about the counterterror state isn’t flattering.

I need to prepare for the inevitable.

Much of the “Surveillance and Critical Digital Humanities” course I attended at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute discussed what types and the means by which data are collected, the differential application of surveillance techniques on racialized and criminalized populations, and the inequalities arising from data collection and use. But we also explored methods of retaking control of our data and, in my case, probing more deeply into ways of protecting myself from doxxing and swatting.

First and foremost, lock down your data. Undergoing a “Data Detox” is an especially useful process, particularly if you are new to or unfamiliar with all the ways your data is collected online. The detox helps lock down your data by plugging privacy and security holes through which your data flows out into the world. As a result, less data about you (your contacts, preferences, interests, etc.) can be swept up, stored, and dispersed to unknown entities. This particular Data Detox is spread over eight days (although our class doubled up the steps and did it in four). It covers Google, Facebook, web browsing, cookies, and trackers, just to name a few. You might also want to think about a new email address, password manager, or virtual private network (VPN). A new email will allow you to start semi-fresh and to be more mindful of where you send your email address. Setting up a password manager and two factor authentication can take time since each individual account needs to be roped in, but it’s worth it for the extra layer of security. And a VPN creates a little pocket of privacy in an otherwise public network by disguising your IP address with a temporary one, thereby giving you more security and anonymity.

Compartmentalization also emerged as a theme. We all probably do this to some extent—a personal email separate from our work one, a social Facebook page versus a professional LinkedIn account. However, depending on our level of comfort with crossing data streams as well as the subject matter of our research, we might want to consider more extensive compartmentalization. For instance, as a counterterrorism scholar I have looked up more than a few questionable topics and sources. And I did it on Google Chrome (if you know anything about how much Google can track you on Chrome and /or Gmail you’d be gasping in dismay. I’m probably on a list somewhere). It would be better to use one browser for general browsing and another, less invasive one for research. Use different profile names for your interactions on line (public handles, gamertags, etc). Some guides also suggest compartmentalizing your analog life too, for instance a PO box for all non-personal mail to help keep trolls from finding out where you live.

As with anything, there are trade-offs to consider when locking down your digital footprint. Speed, convenience, and privacy frequently conflict. Google Chrome is great because it works, it’s fast, and it’s “free”—if you don’t count the mining of your data as a cost. Other options like Epic Privacy Browser and Tor will slow down your experience, but significantly increase your privacy. On another front, sometimes leaning too far toward the privacy and security side can itself cause increased surveillance. For example, if I used Tor, a virtual private network (VPN), and Signal encryption for my texts, the US government would most likely flag me for further investigation, particularly given my research interests. Why don’t I want to be surveilled? What am I hiding? In some cases it may be better to remain a little conservative, to let a little stream of data out rather than cut it off completely. Even though the data itself may be revealing, the fact that your data is “participating” in the surveillance state may paradoxically provide a degree of obscurity because of the massive amounts of data being collected.

In the end, it comes down to assessing your level of risk and balancing trade-offs. With so many options for security and privacy (once you know about them), you can select those which best suit your specific needs or desired level of protection.