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.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.