Cory Doctorow: Sara, can we start by just hav­ing you intro­duce your­self and what your day job is?

Sarah Ball: Sure. My name is Sarah Ball and I work for the New York Public Library, and I lead a very small team of amaz­ing peo­ple, and we give library ser­vices to peo­ple who are in jail and prison in the New York area. That means we check out books to peo­ple, and it means we do pro­grams with peo­ple around lit­er­a­cy, and we are for­ev­er try­ing to expand how peo­ple have access to information.

Doctorow: So there’s a fun­ny con­tra­dic­tion to being incar­cer­at­ed (not fun­ny ha-ha) about your rela­tion­ship to pri­va­cy, because those of us who are free get to use pock­et rec­tan­gles that track every­thing we do and every­thing we know and every­thing we say to them and all of the places that we go and every­thing we buy. And peo­ple who are incar­cer­at­ed are denied this dubi­ous priv­i­lege. So what does it mean to be pri­vate when you’re in a place where you have no right to pri­va­cy but are iron­i­cal­ly deprived of the thing that makes your pri­va­cy go away?

Ball: I think that we don’t often think about that lack of the lit­tle tech­nol­o­gy inter­ac­tions that most of us have every day. A per­son who’s in prison has no cell phone, has no dri­ver’s license at the time that he or she is in prison, has no cred­it cards, has no library card even for using our ser­vice. He or she has no bank account, no employ­er, and often even is wear­ing very anony­mous cloth­ing and unfor­tu­nate­ly to some he or she might even have an anony­mous face. And I think that when you look at all of that, you think that this per­son might be dis­con­nect­ed because they are hid­den from the world, but in fact the like­li­hood that they have been sur­veilled and are cur­rent­ly being sur­veilled is so much high­er than most of us in this room. Every phone call is record­ed, many of your let­ters might be read, your crim­i­nal charge is very eas­i­ly acces­si­ble just by a sim­ple name search online. 

So think­ing about those things, it goes much deep­er than that. When we’re look­ing at data­bas­es, for exam­ple, there are data­bas­es for gang affil­i­a­tion. And the peo­ple who are in those data­bas­es, they’re expe­ri­enc­ing a lack of pri­va­cy. In social media, their social media is tracked. There’s actu­al­ly an oper­a­tion with the New York Police Department cur­rent­ly called Operation Crew Cut that sur­veils social media for gang affil­i­a­tion, and these folks area already expe­ri­enc­ing lack of pri­va­cy on the street through stop and frisk, through crow’s nests in the neigh­bor­hood. There’s a neigh­bor­hood out­side of this build­ing that has intense police sur­veil­lance hap­pen­ing in it. And when you see the kind of track­ing that hap­pens with the online expe­ri­ence, you see a com­plete lack of para­me­ters for inclu­sion on those data­bas­es. There’s no low­er age lim­it, there’s no parental noti­fi­ca­tion or con­sent, and there’s absolute­ly no way to get off of those databases. 

So it real­ly becomes a very scary place, and I think the stage is set when you’re actu­al­ly incar­cer­at­ed by the lack of phys­i­cal pri­va­cy. Things like men­tal health con­sul­ta­tion in front of a cor­rec­tions offi­cer who has the respon­si­bil­i­ty of keep­ing you under his con­trol. Showers in view of any­one who might come into your hous­ing unit, includ­ing the librar­i­ans. Your vis­its with your chil­dren hap­pen only in a room with dozens of oth­er peo­ple, and your chil­dren have gone through drug screen­ing before com­ing in, with pos­si­bly a giant dog.

So we’re talk­ing about real­ly intense sur­veil­lance even though these peo­ple are cut off, and it’s a real­ly inter­est­ing space for librar­i­ans to work. Because there is no tech­nol­o­gy there, we actu­al­ly have, weird­ly, an easy time keep­ing what we do pri­vate, but unfor­tu­nate­ly the sec­ond some­one takes that book that we check out to them back to their cell, any offi­cer can pick it up and see what they’re reading.

Doctorow: People who say that they have noth­ing to hide and there­fore noth­ing to fear obvi­ous­ly don’t plan on giv­ing you their ATM PIN or cer­tain­ly we know what they do in the toi­let but they don’t want to do it in front of us. But what they mean usu­al­ly is that, I have the polit­i­cal cap­i­tal and I have the clout and I have the social cap­i­tal, that if any of those things were dis­closed with­out my knowl­edge and will­ing­ness, that I prob­a­bly have a rem­e­dy avail­able to me.

People who are mar­gin­al­ized, they may not have more to hide than any­one else, but what they don’t have is the social cap­i­tal to address adver­sar­i­al breach­es of their pri­va­cy. What can we gen­er­al­ize about mar­gin­al peo­ple over­all from the treat­ment of the most mar­gin­al peo­ple we have, which is peo­ple in jail?

Ball: It’s just an exam­ple of the great­est need. So it seems extreme and it’s shock­ing, and then we have to deal with it because it’s real. But I think that it’s an exam­ple of extreme need on the part of design­ers and what we’re talk­ing about today to make sure not to for­get those peo­ple. I think that when we’re look­ing at tech­nol­o­gy, some­body already said that before we even think about the actu­al tech­nol­o­gy and the actu­al design, we need to think about the idea behind it and the impor­tance of pri­va­cy, and lit­er­al­ly the life and death con­se­quences of tech­nol­o­gy for some. And I think the only way that we can do that is by always ask­ing Who’s not here?” and Who’s not at the table?” and Who’s not at this event right now?” Look around. 

I mean who’s not able to be here, and also who’s just not here? When we think about the elder­ly, we think about peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, we think about peo­ple who don’t know how to read. These are all peo­ple that we need to remem­ber to ask about and to remem­ber to con­sid­er. One of my col­leagues did a won­der­ful job explain­ing that every­one deserves infor­ma­tion, even when it’s incon­ve­nient, and that there needs to be a great effort. 

And just a quick thought about how we actu­al­ly do that. There are peo­ple in this room who you might want to talk to. People don’t talk about the dig­i­tal divide any­more. It sort of became this passé idea like, Ugh, the dig­i­tal divide, so old,” you know. And it’s like, go ask some­body who teach­es com­put­er class­es in a pub­lic library branch about the dig­i­tal divide. Actually go ask them.

So there’s a move­ment in the crim­i­nal jus­tice world, for instance, to get peo­ple of col­or inter­est­ed in becom­ing dis­trict attor­neys. The weight of a dis­trict attor­ney, the pow­er of a dis­trict attor­ney, has been proven in terms of fair sen­tenc­ing and fair pros­e­cu­tion. So you want to be able to look across the table and know that you are expe­ri­enc­ing an unbi­ased jus­tice sys­tem. And I think with tech­nol­o­gy I’m not talk­ing about just talk to these peo­ple. I’m say­ing bring up peo­ple in the tech com­mu­ni­ty that have the expe­ri­ence of being underserved.

Doctorow: So there’s a tra­jec­to­ry for sur­veil­lance and con­trol tech­nol­o­gy that it starts with peo­ple in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, moves to peo­ple in the men­tal health sys­tem, moves to chil­dren in schools, moves to the blue col­lar work­ers, the avi­a­tion sys­tem, and then white col­lar work­ers, right? That’s the arc of sur­veil­lance. I think of CCTV, or parolee track­ing cuffs, or what­ev­er. What is it that we can see in the way that we sur­veil and con­trol prison pop­u­la­tions with tech­nol­o­gy that’s head­ed for the men­tal health sys­tem, the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, blue col­lar work­ers, fre­quent fly­ers, and white col­lar workers? 

Ball: What we see is real­ly scary and ter­ri­fy­ing, and I think when we look back in his­to­ry and we’re able to com­pare how peo­ple are treat­ed, basi­cal­ly we’re talk­ing about peo­ple who are vul­ner­a­ble are used as sort of exper­i­men­ta­tion pop­u­la­tions. And I hate to say it this way, but we should­n’t be con­cerned just because it’s one day going to reach every­one, we should be con­cerned because it’s reach­ing peo­ple already, I think. 

When a group is used for exper­i­men­ta­tion in sur­veil­lance, in the world of med­i­cine, in these dif­fer­ent ways, it’s because their expe­ri­ence is deval­ued, and it’s because their very human­i­ty is deval­ued. And there are these great par­al­lels to med­ical exper­i­men­ta­tion that are very scary. But there’s always this idea of the greater good, and this jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of the greater good is fright­en­ing because you know, this young man he got new­fan­gled ankle bracelet because it’s more humane and that means he does­n’t have to go to jail. Isn’t that con­ve­nient. Oh, and look, it con­nects to his smart­phone now so that his pro­ba­tion offi­cer can text him when he’s get­ting too close to the edge of his neigh­bor­hood, and isn’t that great? 

And that is hap­pen­ing. You can read about it in the paper. That’s right now. People have been wear­ing ankle bracelets for a long time, so why is that new? It’s new, believe me. There are just cer­tain things. And that’s a test. That’s a test being done on young brown and black men, basically.

Only two weeks ago—this is real­ly tough, but only two weeks ago Meredith, my dear friend showed my col­league and I a book and she said, Hey, did you ever know about this?” And it was about IBM, and it was about the Hollerith machine, which was a tab­u­lat­ing machine, a computer—it was the birth of com­put­ing, right? It was used for the cen­sus, and it was used for social secu­ri­ty, and it was also sold to the Third Reich. These punch cards were used to iden­ti­fy peo­ple and to decide how they would be treat­ed after that, and lit­tle did I know that the num­ber tat­tooed on my grand­par­ents’ arm that I had grown up star­ing at was the num­ber that was in an IBM com­put­er. This is some­thing that I think we need to zoom out. We need to back up and see peo­ple as peo­ple, and the world was intro­duced to this idea that you can quan­ti­fy a human life with data and that it can be done objec­tive­ly because a com­put­er’s doing it, and that is extreme­ly extreme­ly perverse.

Doctorow: As you said, your work takes place behind closed doors in places that are walled off from main­stream soci­ety and so although when you talk about it it’s easy to under­stand how valu­able and impor­tant it is, how does that get val­ued out­side of the prison sys­tem? How does that get val­ued in wider soci­ety? And how can tech peo­ple, in con­crete ways, engage with the work that you do with the largest incar­cer­at­ed pop­u­la­tion in the his­to­ry of the world, which is the American pop­u­la­tion of incar­cer­at­ed people?

Ball: It’s dif­fi­cult to paint a pic­ture of the work that hap­pens inside jails and pris­ons, specif­i­cal­ly because of the idea that we can quan­ti­fy things. So you can of course have the jour­nal­is­tic approach, which is always either sen­ti­men­tal or sen­sa­tion­al or patron­iz­ing, and you can have—

Doctorow: Why choose?

Ball: Exactly. We always cringe when some­body wants to bring press. It’s like, we know it’s a good thing some­times. There’s the quan­ti­ta­tive. How many peo­ple went to the pro­gram? Well, it’s a com­plete­ly unsta­ble envi­ron­ment, things hap­pen, so not very many, often. Things like that. 

And then there’s the qual­i­ta­tive, where to pro­tect peo­ple’s pri­va­cy, the qual­i­ta­tive data of things that hap­pen inside jails and pris­ons can often be very detached and cold and sort of like, it’s a short-term pro­gram or what­ev­er it is. It’s just hard, and I think that we need to learn how to talk about incar­cer­a­tion, we need to learn how to talk about peo­ple who are incar­cer­at­ed, and the way that we’re going to do that is by get­ting dif­fer­ent kinds of thinkers together.

So for instance in the re-entry world, all of these amaz­ing, tal­ent­ed peo­ple are ready to help peo­ple when they get out of jail, and there’s sort of been this idea and this con­sen­sus that, Oh you know what? Shared data is going to be extreme­ly valu­able. We’re going to sign on to the idea that shared data in the re-entry com­mu­ni­ty is going to be sort of like the apex of cus­tomer ser­vice.” And then we real­ly real­ly need design­ers to run up behind that and say, Oh, let me help you make sure that you’re keep­ing peo­ple’s pri­va­cy while you do that.”

Doctorow: We’re get­ting the shep­herd’s crook here, so thank you all very much and thank you, Sarah.

Ball: Thank you.