Communicating in Trump’s America: Teaching encryption behavior to young people

Photo by gfpeck | Flickr

On Sunday, December 4, 2016, the New Inquiry hosted an event called “Communicating in Trump’s America” about how people can use encrypted communication to promote social change in the coming years. Appropriately tucked behind a corner in a DUMBO warehouse, the panel included Harlo Holmes, the Director of Newsroom Digital Security at the Freedom of the Press Foundation; Olivia Martin, a Digital Security Intern at the Freedom of the Press Foundation; Ahmed El-Hady, a neuroscientist at Princeton University and Egyptian revolutionary; and Loubna Mrie, a Middle Eastern Studies student at New York University and Syrian revolutionary. This group of journalists and activists combined their knowledge of both high- and low-tech encryption to offer a balanced vision for building an activist community during Trump’s presidency: from understanding how hackers and spies root mobile phones, to the importance of having a concrete plan when you decide to organize.

Even with their combined experience, the panelists offered a surprisingly light response to a question that came toward the end of the Q&A: How can we teach young people, “digital natives,” how to use their public and social platforms safely? While the panelists from the Freedom of Press Foundation emphasized the importance of teaching everyone about encryption (encryption literacy, we might call it) the prospect of bringing encryption education into the K-12 realm was a stumper. Even understanding the existing laws about data privacy for minors is a challenge; and there is a lot of legalese to wade through at both state and federal levels.

Yet even with the panelists’ trepidation, I noticed several themes over the course of the evening that seemed especially relevant and teachable under the umbrella of multiple literacies. In my mind, I’ve started calling these themes “encryption behaviors,” but don’t let my working neologism get in your way:

  • Seeing Traps
      • Data as Currency: The understanding that nothing is actually free on the internet. What we don’t pay for with dollars, we pay for with data. So, it’s important to be aware of exactly what data each platform collects, what data other users have access to, and how it becomes currency that corporations and governments might exchange. According to Martin, “The general public doesn’t [know] when to believe a platform is secure.” Have you ever tried reading a privacy policy? But knowing who is collecting your data is a good place to start, especially as political phishing scams are on the rise. In the eternal words of Arthur Weasley, “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”
      • Media Literacy: Many of the panelists described propaganda and fake news as the amplifiers of corrupt and repressive governments, propped up by algorithms on Facebook and Google. With the rise in fake news this election season, it’s no wonder students struggle to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate sources. This goes beyond learning to read for bias, to the more basic (and perhaps intangible) ability to read for truth.
  • Creating Shields
    • Low-tech encryption: The words “coded language” came up again and again as panelists talked about how to manage your online presence: go by a nickname rather than your real name; avoid using keywords that might be tracked. El-Hady even talked about “encrypting” his lectures with coded language, while Holmes pointed out that sometimes the best form of encryption is the noise of a loud bar. These kinds of physical choices draw a parallel to theories of figured worlds and created spaces, where time, place, and consensus abet communication and meaning (e.g. Bartlett & Holland, 2002).
    • Cross-national and cross-generational comparisons: It was nearly irresistible for the moderator to draw connections between America’s looming future under Trump and the panelists’ experience with recent uprisings in Egypt and Syria. While El-Hady and Mrie cautioned against alarmist comparisons, the panelists and audience seemed to agree that American activists have a lot to learn from history — from people who have lived under real repressive conditions and older generations who have struggled and won.

I should add the proviso to all of the above points that, of course, we shouldn’t underestimate what young folks already know, have figured out, or hacked together on their own. Many, no doubt, have some sense of the value and appeal of ephemeral communication thanks to apps like Snapchat and Confide. Cross-generational learning can work in two directions.

So, let’s conclude with the idea of imagination, which was another recurrent theme throughout the panel: the ability to envision the worst possible outcomes of this administration and build bulwarks against them. It’s important not to be alarmist in the conversations that we have with each other and our students, but there may also be a way to draw hope, strength, and trust from a shared set of digital literacies and encryption behaviors.

NOTE: The event ended with a cryptoparty, but I wasn’t able to stick around. For those that are interested in securing/encrypting their devices, maybe consider hosting one of these? Also, check out the ACLU’s cybersecurity tips.

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