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.