Making Privacy Personal

In the past several weeks I’ve had several one-on-one conversations with friends and colleagues about digital privacy rights. Some were concerned about the latest news that WAP2 protocol has a huge glaring security vulnerability. Others were curious about what information Facebook collects about them and how that information might have been used in the 2016 U.S. election.

What became clear to me is that there is a real lack of literacy when it comes to talking about online privacy. People are concerned but often they’re too embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they don’t understand what they should be concerned about – usually people just ignore the problem unless they’re directly attacked.

There’s a community of organizers who host CryptoParties – free, community-based workshops that teach the basics of cybersecurity to a lay audience. You don’t need to know anything about PGP or Tor in order to attend and participate. I want to organize a small home-based cryptoparty first with my friends and then later more broadly.

The goals of my workshop:

  • Educate internet users about their digital privacy rights
  • Help consumers think critically about the online platforms and tools they use
  • Empower individuals to assess their own situation through ‘threat modeling’
  • Foster a safe, judgement-free space in which people can express their specific concerns and fears about their privacy
  • Teach the group about specific tools they can download and behaviors they should model to mitigate risks:
    1. Passwords (and password managers e.g. LastPass)
    2. Trackers and cookies (Privacy Badger, ad blockers, disabling cookies)
    3. The big social platforms: Facebook and Google
    4. HTTPS, TLS, and asymmetric encryption (HTTPS Everywhere)
    5. End-to-end encryption (Signal, WhatsApp, iMessage)
    6. Encrypting email (PGP)
    7. VPN (Private Internet Access vs. your own server)
    8. Tor Browser

I will be developing the curriculum via a GitHub repository located here.

The plastisphere.

For my research topic, I was assigned the plastisphere.

The plastisphere is a term used to describe ecosystems that have evolved to live in human-made plastic environments. Because plastic is hydrophobic, biofilms can form rapidly on the surface of plastic. In marine environments, this means that plastic can host a wide spectrum of microorganisms.

Global plastic production exceeds 300 million tons per year, with up to 5% of this entering the ocean as plastic litter. “We have inadvertently created a completely new habitat in the ocean with all of this plastic debris,” says Tracy Mincer, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “This stuff didn’t exist there over 40 years ago.”

Mincer is part of a group of scientists who discovered that thousands of microbes have evolved to thrive on the plastic trash that collects in the ocean, especially in giant gyres like the Great Pacific garbage patch.

The Great Pacific garbage patch (or trash vortex) is a gyre of marine debris particles in the Pacific Ocean that contains high concentrations of pelagic plastics and chemicals. One of the reasons plastic pollution is so difficult to address is because often the pollution is not easily visible, consisting of very small pieces of plastic.

The problem(s)

The plastisphere poses several significant threats to our environment.

Firstly, many of the bacteria and algae that attaches itself to the plastic debris floating in the ocean are part of the genus Vibrio, which causes cholera and other illnesses.

Secondly, because plastic is so durable, plastic pollution acts as a “ship” for carrying microorganisms across long distances. This means that microbes are getting transported to different ecosystems and invasive species and harmful algae could be introduced into other ecosystems.

Finally, some of the organisms that attach themselves to the debris encourage biodegradation of plastic materials, introducing potentially hazardous chemicals into the ocean. As plastic gets broken down, it gets eaten by plankton and enters into the food chain, eventually being consumed by humans.

The experts

  • Dr. Tracy Mincer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Dr. Linda Amaral-Zettler, Marine Biological Laboratory
  • Dr. Erik Zettler, Sea Education Association

Technologies of power.

This is my response to readings for the class Mediating The Bio-Political Body.

“Power has no control over death,” said Foucault in his Biopolitics lectures, “but it can control mortality.” Tracing the emergence of techniques of power in the 17th century, Foucault observes that these forms of power were centered on the individual body rather than the collective body. In effect, sovereign power amounted to the simple fact that the leader could kill his subject at any moment. With the emergence of new power mechanisms in the 18th century, power was applied not to “man-as-body” but to “man-as-living-being.” In other words, biopolitics deals with the population as a political and biological problem. Under these new power structures, the sovereign possesses the power of regularization, the power of making life and letting die.

Foucault argues that our current society is essentially a superimposing of these two technologies of power: power over the individual body and power over a mass of bodies. The first power is disciplinary and manipulates the body as “a source of forces that have to be rendered useful,” while the second power “brings together the mass effects characteristic of a population and tries to control the random events that can occur in a living mass.”

In modern society, the pairing of these technologies of power has distinct implications. We see governments increasingly controlling the reproduction rate, fertility rate, birth/death rate, resulting in the development of medicine whose main function is public hygiene, sex education, and medical care. As the intersection of body and population, sexuality falls under the domain of both techniques of power and is therefore subject to both discipline and regularization.