Watching the watchers: a countersurveillance workshop and ACLU Technology and Liberty Team

November 2019


Increasingly powerful surveillance tools have shifted the power dynamics between people and institutions. To address this new dynamic, and the ACLU of Washington's Technology and Liberty team have been working together to create a community-centered countersurveillance advocacy toolkit. Using this toolkit, we held two pilot countersurveillance workshops in Seattle in October 2019, in partnership with members of the Tech Fairness Coalition. This post discusses the design of the workshops, participants' feedback, and our next steps. If you're interested in getting involved with designing the toolkit or facilitating workshops, please get in touch by email or join our mailing list.

An organizer holds a copy of the People's Field Guide to Spotting Surveillance in front of a stop on a walking tour.

The need

After several conversations between and the ACLU of Washington's Technology and Liberty team, we saw the clear need for a "watching the watchers" resource: a toolkit that could demystify surveillance technologies in the local context of Seattle in a way that centers the experience of communities that have been disproportionately targeted by surveillance and makes explicit the context of structural inequity in America. The immediate need would be to help build the capacity of communities to understand and engage with local legislation of surveillance technology such as the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance. In the future, we hope that it could be widely adopted in other communities.

Ideally, such a resource would be written to be accessible to a broad audience, provide structures for collaborative experience and learning, incorporate scaffolding for "training the trainers," and emphasize themes of "power, not paranoia." (This slogan comes from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.) The idea would be to help participants answer the following questions:

To help fill this need, from May-October 2019, and ACLU-WA have been developing a community-centered countersurveillance advocacy toolkit tailored to the context of Seattle. The resource comprises the following five components:

In October, we tested out our resource for the first time by holding two pilot countersurveillance workshops with members of the ACLU-WA's Tech Fairness Coalition and others in tech or advocacy. Our first workshop had twenty participants, and our second workshop had ten. We're revising our toolkit based on what we learned from this experience.

Read on to find out how the workshop went, what we learned, and what we plan to do next!

Opening the workshop: a conversation about surveillance past and present

One key question for us was this: How can we create a space where people feel safe to express and learn from their different lived experiences of surveillance, while protecting those who may have experienced trauma around surveillance? We feel strongly that being part of these conversations is a powerful way for participants to learn together. However, it will continue to be a balancing act to protect participants' experiences and emotional health while surfacing histories of how surveillance disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. One guiding principle for us was to do no harm: it's okay for folks to have a "meh" experience, but facilitators should avoid introducing experiences or topics in ways that may trigger participants to recall traumatic histories.

To try and create a safe space, we started our first workshop by going over community agreements, a combination of ACLU and codes of conduct meant to create a safe space in the room. The community agreements are how we open the workshop, and it makes sense to invite participants to add their community guidelines as well as a first step to co-creating the space.

To understand what brought us together, we asked participants to answer one of two questions:

What had brought you to the room today?

What's one question you have about surveillance?

The Seattle community is familiar with surveillance, and participants shared that they had come with practical countersurveillance questions, both about protecting themselves and changing the way things are:

"How do we protect ourselves?"

"How do I counter the 'surveillance equals safety' narrative?"

"How do I convince engineers to stop building surveillance systems?"

Some participants came with a feeling of concern and urgency that were tangled in the complexity of encroaching surveillance systems in their own communities. For example, members of the Chinatown International District coalition brought questions about how to communicate the danger of surveillance to other Chinatown residents who were funding the installation of a surveillance camera system in the district.

This opening discussion, which already introduced themes of structural inequity, enabled us to segue into an introduction to the idea of the surveillance gap. To do this, we gave an overview of moments in the history of surveillance and power. For example, in the first workshop, we introduced the 1713 Lantern Law as a singular example linking the practice of surveillance with the history of codified racism and oppression via "weaponized light." In the second workshop, we extended the history of surveillance to include more examples of the surveillance gap, including from FBI surveillance of Vietnam-era anti-war protests, post-9/11 vehicle surveillance of Muslim communities, and very recent Hong Kong face mask bans. Participants volunteered further examples, such as the Stasi Museum.

Our historical context led up to the central question that framed our workshop.

How else does surveillance affect different groups of people today?

We continued to return to this question in the more concrete tech-focused experiences that followed.

Playing the watcher: three exercises in surveillance

Having set context, the next part of the workshop focused on building a a more concrete understanding of how surveillance works. To provide an accessible and realistic way to understand human and machine gazes, the team developed two exercises, Social Media Fortune-Telling and Inside the Black Box.

The Social Media Fortune-Telling exercise asked participants to roleplay social media surveillance: pair up, peer into their partner's online activity (such as a social media profile, search history, or photos) and predict something their partner would like to buy. The fortune-telling exercise in the second workshop seeded a lively conversation around the information that people were able to find about each other—one participant said that she had found all of her partner's past addresses and phone numbers by just searching for their name. Other participants said that their partners had uncannily accurately predicted the kinds of gifts they would like.

The Inside the Black Box exercise asked participants to browse the Microsoft Common Objects in Context (MSCOCO) dataset and draw out observations on how the computer "sees" an image. Some participants pointed out important cultural context that the computer did not identify, or inconsistency with identifying how subjects in a photo related to each other. We learned from the first workshop that the fortune-telling exercise engaged and connected participants in a way that the black box exercise did not, because it gave participants a chance to engage directly with each other.

A search for 'person' and 'cat' in the Microsoft Common Objects in Context dataset yields an image of a cat asleep on the tv stand with the television on, with the parts of the image tagged by type, and several captions written by people.

To introduce participants to how surveillance has changed over time and also stayed the same, we finished with the Wi-Fi Spy exercise. WiFi works by shouting, and what our smart devices are shouting can leak a lot of sensitive information about our exact location and lives. After giving participants a chance to opt out by turning off their devices' Wi-Fi, we ran some code on our laptops that displayed the unique identifiers (MAC addresses) of smart devices near us and the names of the networks they were trying to connect to. (Credit for the code used in exercise goes to the folks at BrangerBriz, who designed the Wi-Fi Data Safari.) The experience helped connect our personal digital trails with the physical infrastructure of the Acyclica installations we later pointed out on the walking tour, which used the same approach to count traffic by tracking smart devices trying to connect to Wi-Fi.

Real Wi-Fi logs from the workshop, showing networks around us that local devices are requesting, such as 'PitchBook Guest' (a business on the same floor as the workshop). Devices' MAC addresses are redacted for privacy.

Watching the watcher: a walking tour of surveillance infrastructure in downtown Seattle

To show participants the layers of the "smart" city that are hidden in plain sight, collecting and storing data about our bodies and movements, we designed a walking tour of surveillance infrastructure in downtown Seattle. During both workshops we made the following stops:

A group of participants walks away from the AT&T peering site, which is also an NSA wiretapping site in the FAIRVIEW program.

The AT&T peering site, a nearly windowless building, looms high at night.

A traffic camera is poised above an intersection in downtown Seattle at night.

In general, participants seemed to really enjoy the walking tour and find the information it presented to be applicable to their daily lives in Seattle. Most participants were surprised at just how much "stuff" there was in the three blocks around the ACLU WA office in downtown Seattle. As one participant, a policy advocate at a community organization, wrote:

The walking tour was great. I think it is extremely valuable for participants to see practical examples of surveillance technology, and it seems more meaningful to learn about these tools on a walking tour rather than in a lecture. Talking about surveillance tech can be daunting and seem very abstract to some people, so putting a "face" to that is helpful and I think will make people be able to talk about these tools with more nuance and depth.

We also learned that walking tour needs to be integrated into the overall workshop with attention to the surroundings and context.

For the first workshop, we viewed and discussed each piece of surveillance infrastructure outside. For the second workshop, we saved our discussion until we were inside, which made the "walking" portion of the walking tour much shorter. The latter format worked much better because during the first workshop, it was difficult for people to hear each other over the downtown traffic and wind, and we were often blocking walkways or entrances to stores (e.g., Amazon Go). During the second workshop, it was easier for people to ask questions and have an in-depth discussion about the pieces of surveillance infrastructure we viewed as we were less distracted by noise, weather, traffic, and pedestrians.

Additionally, we learned that the walking tour needs to be followed up with activities that help people understand the connections between the different tools and how to take action in the ways that they feel moved to. In our first workshop, we didn't have much time for those activities, so participants became very aware of pervasive surveillance, but left without a clear idea of what to do in response with this new awareness. Again, we want to build "power, not paranoia."

Connecting the dots: mapping oral histories of the surveillance society

After introducing participants to many tools and actors involved in surveilling them, we wanted to help people develop a collective understanding of how everything fit together. So we segued into the activity Mapping oral histories of the surveillance society, which we designed to help participants get a "big picture" view of the surveillance society by "connecting the dots" between key players. To do that, we walk participants through some oral histories of the surveillance society (i.e. data stories) that show how their information flows through it.

Two resources that we designed for the workshop: a map of the oral histories of the surveillance society, and a copy of the People's Field Guide to Spotting Surveillance Infrastructure .

We received generally positive feedback about this activity and about the printed artifacts themselves.

Taking action

The mapping activity showed ways that unregulated flows of information could lead to people's information being used in unexpected ways, and even against them. So we segued into a section on taking action against pervasive surveillance with the concrete example of stopping a flow. We discussed an example of how a piece of well-designed legislation can stop private companies from owning, profiting off of, and sharing public data. The story of the Cambridge Surveillance Ordinance demonstrates how surveillance oversight laws can stop secret police/Amazon agreements in their tracks.

With this example, we then moved into an action-oriented section. With all the new information, we asked people to think about what they felt moved to do, get into groups, and propose an action or intervention.

We had an interesting experience with this exercise, because each facilitator found that they started to facilitate their group's discussion in a different way. Groups started by (understandably) proposing concrete, individual actions like smashing surveillance cameras. We encouraged each group to come up with more systemic, historical, and communal actions to take by introducing questions like, "If you smash one camera, there will be two cameras there the next day. What would be a more effective action that we could take together?"

After this exercise, we compiled a list of actions that we'd like to take, as well as caveats to those actions:

We'd like to add these actions to a communal knowledge base.

On reviewing the feedback, we found that including this facilitated brainstorming session indeed boosted people's confidence and desire to get involved in community action! As one participant wrote:

I'm concerned about this issue [of pervasive surveillance] on a daily basis. There is emotion behind it. But this workshop makes me hopeful. I think it's a ground floor platform for making change. I hope they take off.

Reflections on design

Here are some of the ways we'd like to improve the design and approach of the material:

What's next?

In the immediate future, we're continuing to develop our toolkit to support the ACLU of Washington's need for community members in the Seattle area to engage with the review process of the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance.

We're working to co-design this toolkit with the communities that it seeks to serve. To bootstrap the toolkit, we wrote the first draft and facilitated the first two pilot workshops ourselves. To extend this work, we are are talking with leaders of community organizations in the Seattle area about co-designing the material for their needs and handing off the toolkit so they can facilitate their own workshops.

In the future, we envision that countersurveillance workshops could be run by any interested community member who uses our toolkit. We hope to provide the support for community members to build capacity to resist pervasive surveillance, particularly in those communities that are disproportionately targeted, so we can create a more just and equitable future together.

Get involved!

Are you a community leader who would be interested in reviewing the toolkit as we develop it, co-developing material for your local context, or co-facilitating a workshop with us? Please get in touch by email!

If you're generally interested in hearing updates on our people's surveillance toolkit, upcoming workshops, and opportunities to get involved, please join our mailing list.

The following projects pioneered some of the demystification approaches that we borrow in our toolkit.

About us

The Technology and Liberty team at the ACLU of Washington works to create community-centric technology policy. We lead cutting-edge advocacy, organizing, and litigation strategies to protect constitutional rights in the face of game-changing advancements in technology. Our innovative approach centers race equity, fairness, accountability, and transparency, with a particular focus on disproportionately impacted communities. is a new US-based collective of researchers, engineers, and designers who recognize that computing is a tool that has often been used to amplify existing power imbalances, so we employ cultural and technical practices to reshape the balance of power by redistributing it to impacted communities.

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