As protests against police brutality continue in the U.S., privacy advocates warn of the risks posed by centralized social media platforms.
The protests in the United States against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25 are showing no signs of stopping.
Rallies and marches have continued in many cities for three weeks now, with events organized in all 50 states as well as in at least 40 countries around the world. Another killing of an African American man in Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks — who was shot in the back twice while fleeing police — has only fed more fuel to the fire.
Most events have been organized and promoted using centralized, corporate-owned social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The ease of communication and ability to connect with one another that these large platforms provide have been a major driving force in enabling the activists to mobilize quickly and successfully.
As cities and states begin to unveil policing reforms in response to the widespread protests, with the Minneapolis City Council going so far as voting to disband its police department, privacy advocates have argued that those who are serious about resisting censorship and government surveillance should be wary of centralized platforms because they are controlled, for-profit entities and are subject to coercion from governments. Instead, they point to decentralized technologies and platforms as having the potential to be a safer way for activists to communicate.
Centralized social media presents risks
As of 2019, an estimated 72% of all U.S. adults use social media, and given the coronavirus-related lockdown, people have been more connected than ever. Organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement have relied on Instagram’s “stories” feature to notify protest attendees of location changes, while police scanner apps were downloaded during the initial days of the protests by hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have taken to Twitter to assume “scanner duty” and broadcast the movements of police officers for protesters.
These platforms give activists and dissidents an unprecedented ability to communicate and organize, but they are run by for-profit corporations that are ultimately beholden to shareholders and governments. This, privacy advocates argue, represents a fundamental flaw in their ability to be secure and resistant to censorship.
Matthew Hodgson, a technical co-founder of the decentralized Matrix communications protocol, told Cointelegraph that these platforms do not serve end users because their business models are to present regular users with ads. In order to best deliver ads, they collect large amounts of user data that accumulates and is at risk of being abused.
Since social media companies are also privately owned entities, they can revoke a user’s access to their platforms for any reason, especially if they are seen as too controversial or “non-mainstream,” pointed out Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author. Those decisions affect speech, assembly and the ability to organize, he said, adding: “That’s a very dangerous kind of system to pin democracy on.”
Oftentimes, the decision to remove a user or their content is typically made by underpaid content moderators in developing countries or by an algorithm, rather than a company’s leadership. Cointelegraph itself recently found its recent Bitcoin (BTC) halving event canceled by YouTube mid-livestream for being “harmful content.”
Sharon Bradford Franklin, the policy director of think tank New America’s Open Technology Institute, told Cointelegraph that algorithmic decisions often result in “discriminatory targeting of messages, amplification of harmful content, or silencing of marginalized communities,” and that platforms have a responsibility to “take steps to audit and modify their algorithms, and avoid suppressing protest movements.”
Centralized companies are beholden to governments
Shareholders are not the only group that corporations must answer to. These global organizations are also required to follow the laws of the nations in which they operate and can face intense pressure to censor content governments deem subversive. The messaging app Telegram has been banned in Russia since 2018, China’s “Great Firewall” blocks access to thousands of websites, and even the video conferencing platform Zoom admitted to deactivating U.S.-based accounts on behalf of the Chinese government.
President Donald Trump suggested on May 27 that the U.S. government could implement a similar approach and ban specific apps or websites that are used by activists to dissent and organize protests. Trump then acted on the suggestion by signing an executive order seeking to remove existing protections that shield social media companies from lawsuits.
Luke Stokes, the managing director of the Foundation for Interwallet Operability and a witness for the Hive blockchain — a decentralized social network — told Cointelegraph that as the U.S. has gotten away with doing many things never thought possible, it would not surprise him if the nation’s government took intentional action to censor online platforms. However, doing so would be a slippery slope toward the erosion of citizens’ rights, he explained:
“Any form of restricting freedom of speech is dangerous because it is the right that enables us to communicate the reality of every other right. When those with a monopoly on the initiation of force control the narrative, that is a very dangerous thing for a free people.”
According to Franklin, however, the even bigger risk is that officials might try to ban end-to-end encryption and force tech companies to weaken the security of their products. Franklin was referring to Republican Senator Lindsay Graham’s introduction of the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, otherwise known as the EARN IT Act, which would effectively ban the use of end-to-end encryption by stripping legal protections from companies that do not comply with a list of government-approved best practices. Yet to be determined, these guidelines are widely expected to include government access to the content of all messages. Franklin told Cointelegraph:
“End-to-end encryption is vital to the ability of activists and ordinary people alike to communicate securely. Particularly as our country confronts police violence and pervasive surveillance, it is critical that people are able to express themselves safely and securely.”
While the bulk of organizing has remained public on unencrypted social media platforms, the number of new users downloading the encrypted messaging app Signal has skyrocketed by 259% since the start of the protests. The security-focused app uses end-to-end encryption to protect messages and phone calls, and has long been a favorite of whistleblower Edward Snowden.
However, apps such as Signal that are centrally owned may not be as reliable as some hope. Signal has stated that if the EARN IT Act is signed into law, “it would not be possible for a small nonprofit like Signal to continue to operate within the United States.”
Decentralized platforms may provide a solution
Advocates of decentralization argue that the solution to the issue of profit-driven, algorithmic or government-imposed censorship of activists on centralized platforms lies in embracing decentralized alternatives. Indeed, there have been use cases of social movements using decentralized technology to organize.
In Hong Kong, protesters have been using the app Bridgefy to communicate via Bluetooth-based mesh networks that send messages offline, bypassing the Great Firewall and reducing the risk of being shut down. Peer-to-peer mesh networks are composed of individual nodes that all connect into a “mesh.” If one node is not directly connected to another, messages will hop from node to node until they reach their intended targets.
In Spain, the Catalan separatist group Tsunami Democratic developed an app built on top of the free software Retroshare, which allows it to create a private, encrypted, peer-to-peer network. New users must scan a QR code of a user that has already joined the network in order to access it. Once instructed, users provide their general geographic location so that they can be activated for regional activities.
Hodgson believes that decentralized communications platforms have the ability to change the way in which social movements are organized. The Matrix communications protocol that he helped develop was designed specifically to be censorship-resistant and give as much privacy and control to each group of users as possible. Hodgson told Cointelegraph:
“It is vital for social movements to be able to communicate privately and without leaving a metadata footprint, otherwise you are simply accumulating data in a centralised messaging service which could be abused, deliberately or otherwise, by that centralised service or the jurisdiction under which they operate.”
According to Stokes, in order to be truly censorship-resistant, a communications platform must not only have decentralized hardware but also be decentrally governed. “If there’s a single point of failure a government or powerful entity can shut down or censor, then it is not a resilient or censorship resistant system,” he said. Stokes believes that decentrally governed blockchain-based platforms have the potential to be the most resilient:
“It’s the individuals participating in governance according to the consensus algorithm that give a blockchain censorship resistance. Those could be miners in PoW, stakers in PoS, or voters/stakers in DPoS.”
Decentralized tech for the bad
There have certainly been a number of instances in which criminal or terrorist groups have used encrypted and/or decentralized technology to facilitate their activities. In 2008, an al-Qaeda-linked group released an app called “Mujahideen Secrets 2” — an update of the original app released in 2007 — which promised to be “the first Islamic program for secure communications through networks with the highest technical level of encoding.”
In an even more complex operation, the Zeta drug cartel in Mexico kidnapped and enslaved engineers in order to build a do-it-yourself, encrypted, decentralized radio network that relied on hundreds of antennas, signal relay stations and solar power. Most malicious actors, however, opt for existing technologies such as the anonymity-centric Tor browser to host illicit sites on the darknet, often financed through cryptocurrency payments in BTC, Ether (ETH) or Monero (XMR).
The Islamic State group has also experimented with several decentralized platforms including Riot.im, a free, open-source messaging app based on the Matrix protocol that boasts complete privacy. Hodgson — who is also CEO of New Vector, the developing company of Riot.im — said that while it is impossible to stop bad people from using open networks, developers can create tools that allow users to curate content for themselves and filter out anything considered to be bad. He added that the Matrix community is actively building tools into the protocol to facilitate the process.
Everything in society, including “infrastructure, […] airplanes, cars, restaurants, telephones,” can be used for either good or bad, argued Schneier, but “the reason society works is that there are way more good people than bad people.” He added that even though privacy-focused technology can be used for nefarious purposes, nations are safer when everyone is secure than when everyone has the same central vulnerabilities.
Technology is not a panacea
While technology may have the ability to allow activists to organize securely and away from the prying eyes of corporations and governments, decentralized and privacy-focused apps should not be considered panaceas. Movements for social change, at their core, revolve around the organization of people. Ross Schulman, the senior policy counsel and senior technologist of New America’s Open Technology Institute, told Cointelegraph:
“To the extent that these technologies [P2P and decentralized apps] enable greater abilities for direct and protected communications between people and provide the infrastructure for growing and managing communities, there is the potential for them to influence how social movements grow and spread. With that said, the hard part of organizing is always in the connections that we build with our neighbors in our communities and no technology can replace that if it is missing.”
If civil liberties were to deteriorate to the point where activists could longer organize via centralized platforms without the threat of arrest or death, whether the apps and protocols are centralized or decentralized may not make as big of a difference as some might think. According to Schneier, no piece of software will ever truly protect one against government oppression. “Computer security’s not going to save you,” he said. “If we actually move into that level of police state, the app will only save you in the movies.”