Berhan Taye: Hello. Hi! Wow, it’s…very bright up here, if you’re wondering. Hi everyone. Maybe I’ll just give you like two minutes for people to settle down. Okay. Great. So my name is Berhan Taye. I define myself as a public interest tech researcher that investigates the intersection of technology and social justice, mostly focusing on censorship and surveillance, and the vicious cycle of those two. I also work with Access Now. I lead the #KeepItOn campaign, which is a campaign that fights against censorship and surveillance.
So today’s conversation, as I’m sure you were able to tell from the title, is the vicious cycle of censorship and surveillance. How big tech companies, small ones, and those ones in between—telcos—are in the process of supporting and aiding government surveillance [to] censor the majority. I’m gonna try to end this conversation around the twentieth minute, so that you guys can have some time to ask questions. I would also love to hear how you’ve been surveilled and censored by big tech companies like me and my friends.
Great. So, I’m going to start with telling a story about a friend of mine. A friend of mine has been arrested a few times in the past five years. He was arrested not because he was a hardcore criminal, no. It’s because he he had decided to speak when the majority of us were very scared of speaking. He was arrested because he wrote when the majority of us could not even find our pens to write with. He decided to challenge the status quo and question the government’s narrative when many of us were too scared to even come out of our hiding, let alone challenge them.
So for this heroic action of his, he was arrested, beaten, and tortured. And this is the usual stuff that happens to you when you’re a dissident, or were a dissident in Ethiopia. We have a new government now where…we’re not sure if they’re democratic or not.
So, along with being arrested, beaten, and tortured—I think those are really important things to stress on, the government was very meticulous in silencing him offline and making sure that he was also silent online. The government normally would for instance ban printing presses from printing newspapers. But they were also very careful in making sure that your blogs were blocked, your web sites were blocked. So you’d have berhan.blogpost.com; that would be blocked. And then you’d have berhan1.blogpost.—they’re just busy there, sitting there just blocking. So you just have to kind of give up at some point, and many of us did.
The last time my friend was in prison was in March 2018. A new government has come, as I told you, and he’s been out of prison since then. And many of us are actually…quite weird with the fact that you know, we’re not going to prison to visit him. It’s such a bizarre thing because we’d spend much of our Sundays, our Saturdays going to go see him.
For him and for many like him, he had depended on Facebook and Twitter to speak, because when your blogs are blocked, your social media is your tool and so Facebook and Twitter are blocked. And those tools I mean, we all have to sort of understand were the only source of venting for many of us. And speaking was almost impossible and you’d have to pay for it.
So one afternoon August 2018, I remember we were hanging out and he was frantically typing—he has this way of typing, it’s really interesting, he types like my grandfather. And he wanted to post a specific blog that he had written about the new government and how he was challenging the status quo—as always. Once he’s done he tried to post it on Facebook, it didn’t work. He tried again…it didn’t work. And we were like okay, this is weird. Or like, “Oh, log off that wifi. Try the new wifi.” It also didn’t work. I was like, “Okay, maybe it’s your computer. Try my computer.” It also didn’t work with my computer.
So we were like okay. And then finally we were able to see when we paid attention, there was a banner that used to come up and it said— Every time he tried to post it wouldn’t stick, and it read along these lines: “You’re not allowed to post because you violated the terms and ‘conditions’ of our community standards.” That was quite bizarre to many of us. Because we did not understand what that meant. I know what Facebook’s terms and conditions are. You’re not supposed to be violent, you’re supposed to give voice, blah blah blah, blah blah—we’ve all read those things. But it felt quite arbitrary, and we did not understand what was happening at that moment.
So as a person that claims to study the surveillance state and how the surveillance state structure works, I can pretty confidently tell you that I understand how the surveillance state works. I can guess with some accuracy which part of the intelligence would be tasked with blocking content, filtering, and blocking web sites. I also can… Well, not with this new government but the previous government, I can tell you which specific building the intelligence that does this work is in. And for lack of a better word, I can say I understand how the system works. I can feel it, I can touch it, there are people behind it. And those people technically look like me, they speak the same language. They’re mostly men but you know, they’re not white men, is what I’m trying to say. You can definitely tell what would trigger a government to block your web site and to block your blogs. So we would play around those terms and play around those things to make sure that our web sites and content were not blocked.
But when it comes to being censored on Facebook, it’s traumatizing and retraumatizing at the same time because many of us did not understand why Facebook was blocking the specific content. And why accounts of activists were being blocked. My friend, who’s a legitimate activist that did not violate any of the terms and conditions that Facebook had set out for us, there was no evidence of him violating all of those things and it just didn’t make sense to many of us. One could also attribute this obvious mistake that was made by Facebook to the troll armies of the government. But the troll armies were not working that “season,” as I’ve told you, because we have a new and democratic government. And as much as we understand, the surveillance state was trying to restructure itself, so that trolls were out of work for that moment. And we had people to verify that.
And at that specific moment, many of us felt like the censorship of the state structure had crept into the Facebook structure as well and the social media platforms. And what made the censorship difficult to grapple with was that it was very difficult to reach, and for many of us very difficult to understand. The same structures that governed Facebook were far away from reach for many of us, and my friend had to reach out to the organization that I work for, Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline, to resolve this issue. And until today, Facebook has not told us why his account was blocked or why his content was blocked. And we needed someone to mediate between us and them. And not many people even have access to Access Now, or speak the language that the staff of Access Now speak.
Unfortunately this is not unique to my friend, and I’m sure many people in this crowd will be able to share this story if they’re not from this part of the world. This is common across the world; happens in Vietnam and in many other places. One activist for instance was blocked sixteen times in two weeks. The reason Facebook gave was that he was posting too much. So, that might be a legitimate reason based on how you see it. But who gets to decide what too much is, and what terms and conditions did we agree to that? Those are questions that have not been answered for many of us. This and many other situations have forced many of us that are at the margins to see Facebook censorship to be continuing where governments end.
Moving this conversation away maybe from social media platforms, let’s talk about the roles of telecommunication service providers and Internet service providers in many parts of the world where it’s not Europe or North America. Where you and I are gathered here today, for instance, the issue that you might have with your service provider, whether it’s Vodaphone telecom or the other providers that you might have in your homes, your issue might be intelligence agencies having “backdoor” access to our data, or your data, and your data being used to prosecute and censor some. And there might be a…mmm, court order somewhere in between, depending on your level of terroristic abilities. As they would define it.
Where I come from and where the rest of the world is, the issue’s not intelligence agencies having backdoor access to our data. Yes, they do have backdoor access to our data, but they also have front door access to our data. What this means is that they use the information provided unlawfully by tech companies, telecoms, ISPs, to silence the majority in places like Ethiopia, Sudan, Gambia, Venezuela, Uganda, and many—I can continue to list many countries. Intelligence agencies are embedded within the telecom companies’ Internet service providers. What this means is that someone from the intelligence agencies most likely will have a desk, and an office, inside these “tech companies,” the telecom service providers, having access to most users’ information, like me.
So when the intelligence agencies are unethically and illegally embedded within these companies, my question to you is how can we even start a conversation about data protection and the need for a court warrant, when many of these issues arise within the system and we’re unable to tame that power that they have. These men—mostly they’re men, the intelligence agents that are based within the telecom companies—are sitting behind screens that show them the live location of their target. That show them message conversations you’ve had with your informants, and they also have access to many pervasive and private information of users. So, this might not matter to you if you’re you know, an “ordinary citizen” that has “nothing to hide,” but if you’re an activist, a journalist, an opposition figure…or someone that is vocal against the government, this is obviously something you’ll worry about.
Users like me are often unable to choose other service providers, because the same unethical standards apply to all. For instance, the former head of intelligence of Sudan is currently the head of one of the Internet service providers. So, you tell me what sort of conversation am I supposed to have with him about data protection and privacy when he’s actually the core of the structure that surveillance and censors activists, and kills activists and does many horrible things.
These telecoms and ISPs we’re talking about are not just the local ones that are owned by these governments. They’re also the telecom service providers that provide you services here. Vodafone for instance has many subsidiaries in the African continent: MTN, Airtel, and many others. So this conversation…they just seem to have double standards that work for some and that don’t work for some. These companies have become part and parcel of the surveillance and censorship structure of the world.
In addition to institutionalizing the structures of the state, these companies play a significant role in silencing the majority. You might ask why, or how. For instance, when governments do not like what you’re talking about, how you’re organizing online and taking that to the offline space, they will often turn off your Internet. That’s very common where I come from. So Internet shutdowns for instance happen during elections, during protests, or when you’re organizing to call for protests. Just this week Sri Lanka, Benin, Gabon last week, Sudan, Philippines—many have shut down the Internet.
And you might be asking what is the role of telecoms and Internet service providers in shutting down the Internet. They’re the ones that provide you your access to the Internet, and they’re the ones that switch it off.
So, you might also say that you know, telecoms need to abide by the national laws that govern them. So for instance if they’re in Denmark they need to follow the rules of Denmark. If there in Germany or Gabon, they need to follow all of these rules. They also need to make money—that’s the important part. But however, to what extent should they follow the rules even if the rules and the laws and actions are silencing the majority? To what extent do these companies think about the roles they directly and indirectly play in silencing and surveilling many of us?
For instance let’s look at the recent case of Sudan and the protests that had happened. For many of us that live very close to Sudan and have watched the many things happen in Sudan for the past thirty years, we didn’t see the revolution that came, so in December 2018, people were frustrated over prices of fuel and bread and started protesting, and have been protesting for the past five months. They’ve removed a thirty-year-old dictatorship, and they’re in transition. And of course the first thing that happened when that revolution started was the government decided to turn off social media platforms.
So social media platforms definitely play a great role in providing access to information and providing vital information necessary during these kinds of revolutions. But they also give important voice to activists, journalists, and to ordinary citizens. However, in their effort to give voices, and the ways that they’ve disregarded certain design tweaks, they’ve also contributed to silencing some people.
So, when hundreds and thousands of people in the streets of Khartoum, Sudan went out to the streets, the government as I said blocked social media and many of us that were organizing to make sure that they had access to social media, we were like, use virtual proxy networks. You would be able to bypass the censorship that is happening right now. So of course, in normal circumstances that would be an obvious thing to suggest to people. And we did, without really realizing some of the implications using virtual proxy networks might have.
So for instance, when people were trying to log onto Twitter using virtual proxy networks, or VPNs, Twitter thought that someone had hacked into their account because it was being used from maybe Ukraine, or like the US, or Canada, when they’re actually sitting in Sudan. So obviously Twitter blocked these guys and asked them to reconfirm themselves.
However, the way that Twitter was asking people in Sudan to verify their accounts and gain access back to their accounts was the “standard” method that they would use to ask you and I. So what would normally happen is that you’d be asked to verify your account, your password, your email, and then you’ll be able to put in a phone number so that you can have a two-factor identification. So every time you log on using a VPN, you’d get a text on your phone. But if you’re in Sudan, you won’t be able to add your phone number on Twitter because Twitter does not necessarily recognize that either the country Sudan doesn’t exist or they don’t think that they have phone numbers to put in.
So what happened was that people didn’t have phon—when they scrolled through the list, there was nowhere you can see Sudan and put your numbers and get that verification number to verify yourself. So by default people were excluded from having access to social media. What that also meant was that when we suggested for them to use virtual proxy networks, we by default also were forcing them to be excluded from that conversation. This design choice—or disregard, whichever way you want to see it—meant that many were unable to connect to Twitter during Internet shutdowns. And what was a bit more painful for many of us that where on the other side trying to get information out of Sudan was that we know many of these people that were trying to reach out to us were trying to connect and show us the excessive use of force by law enforcement agents on the streets of Khartoum. On that specific week that I’m talking about around sixty people had been killed by the police.
So the question here is for me, who makes the choice to exclude by design or by choice? Is this because Sudan is not important in terms of…or Sudan is not seen in terms of Twitter— Like, who made that decision where Sudan was not on the list, or other countries were not on the list. And these are not the conversations that we’re allowed to ask Twitter or any others, because they’re very very far off in San Francisco, I’ve been told.
So far we’ve talked about the role of Facebook and how it censors. The role of telecoms and ISPs. And how they support governments in one way or another whether they like it or not in censoring and surveilling citizens. However, we talked about Sudan, Ethiopia, Gambia, Gabon, Uganda, and many other countries. What we also must understand is that these countries are not trying to hide that they’re surveilling us. They’ve also bought surveillance tech, machines, malwares, softwares, whatever you call it. So I’m sure many of us are familiar with the surveillance tech companies like NSO Group, the hacking team Cyberbit, and others. We all might agree that you know, these different kinds of surveillance tech companies are created for another purpose. But these governments of ours have bought these softwares and we know that there’s clear forensic evidence that they’re used to surveil people that look like me, people that are activist, people that are organizing in one way or another to challenge the status quo. So the fact that they’re trying to surveil us is not a new topic to us. We all understand, it was just a confirmation that they would go out of their way to make sure that they have control of everything that we do.
So the surveillance state in the way that it’s structured is aided by big and small tech companies that continuously work to surveil and censor us. So I want to also push this conversation a bit further to what is not maybe necessarily obvious, and the issue of how governments are also censoring and surveilling people in many different ways that are not maybe accessing our data directly.
So let’s talk about the issue of mandatory SIM card registration. To be honest with you, it’s a complete waste of time. The other day I wanted to get a SIM card here and I had to show my passport, go to the shop. Like, we all have at some point agreed that we’re all criminals before we’re proven not to be so I don’t understand how that system works. So it’s sad that you also have it here. But for instance in Nigeria or Uganda, if you want to get a SIM card, you’d need to go and give your biometrics. So what biometrics means is that you have to go give your fingerprint to the same telecom service providers that often have a stroll-through-the-front door policy with the intelligence agencies.
Again, in the Nigerian context, in the Togolese context, we know that if you want to have a national ID or a national ID card, you need to give your fingerprint and iris copy, which I’ve been told is the fingerprints of your eyes. And these governments are in the process of consolidating these databases—the one that you’re using to get your SIM cards, the one that you’re using to get your biometric information—and creating a “Big Brother”-style database that would give governments access to many databases about citizens.
Many of our governments for instance are installing CCTV cameras, which is almost two decades after many of you got CCTV cameras in this part of the world. But what we don’t know is that we don’t know who has access to those cameras, or most importantly what capabilities those cameras have. We’ve recently heard and learned that the government of Zimbabwe has graciously volunteered to train the Chinese company’s AI to learn the different shades and faces of black faces. So what that means is that now the AI machines and the facial recognition systems that are unable to tell “black faces” would would be more “accurate” in telling those faces, it seems.
So in a way to sum up, big and small tech companies and those in between, by design or by choice, aid governments [to] surveil and censor their majority. Telecommunications service providers, Internet service providers and others have become part and parcel of the state structures in many of the places that I come from, often providing front door access to law enforcement agencies and surveillance agencies. So your GDPR in this context doesn’t work.
Before I conclude I want to share one story with you again about a friend of mine who was also a well-known journalist in Ethiopia and at some point wanted by the intelligence officers. He was lucky enough to be tipped by someone within the system that he has been under surveillance for a few months and that they’re planning to bring him in for questioning in a few days. We all know—or maybe we all don’t know, I’ve been told, that if you’re “brought in for questioning,” there’s a high probability that you might not be allowed to leave the police station for the next few years. And if you’re lucky and well enough you know, and if CPJ and others can speak on your behalf, you might see a judge in the third or fourth month after you’ve been in prison.
So like many— I mean it was quite a right decision, he decided not to take the risk and fled the country. As most people would do in Ethiopia, he fled through Kenya first. What we’re all nostalgic about those days—this happened six years ago now—is that the immigration officers were not able to identify him when he crossed the border. Which meant that the biometrics collected at immigration or passport control were not consolidated with the ones for national identification. They were not consolidated with those ones that were collected at police stations. And were not consolidated with the ones used for SIM cards. He was able to flee undetected because probably the national intelligence officer that was tasked with his “case” did not yet write the immigration department a letter having him blacklisted.
So when those databases are all consolidated, when they’re able to take the pictures we gave to get our SIM cards, and be able to match them to the protest that we were at, that day the vicious cycle of censorship and surveillance will become a full circle. And the big and small tech companies and telcos will be at the center of it. Thank you.
Moderator: So are there any questions? Please raise your hand and I’ll come to your seat.
Audience 1: So hi. Thanks very much for your talk. And thank you for mentioning the case of Venezuela. We’re having a really complicated issue with digital rights right now. So I wanted to ask you if you knew any case in which people figured out how to break the cycle somehow. If you know any case that maybe has inspired you and oh, this is maybe a way.
Taye: Yeah. The only way that we’ve seen we’ve been able to break the cycle is by upping our digital security. So using Faraday bags has really helped us organize. Faraday bags are bags that you could use to put in your phone and would not be able to track you and all— So the some of the digital security tools and the contextualization that we’ve done to many of the “tools” that have been given to us were the only ones that were able to sort of save us from this vicious cycle of censorship and surveillance. And I could suggest some tools and people that you can talk to about that.
Moderator: Here’s another question.
Audience 2: What’s the response of the social networks like Twitter? Because from my naïve Western perspective I mean, Twitter got big during the Arab Spring because they made it possible that people could organize protests. So I think they have an interest in supporting people which want to use it to organize.
Taye: To be honest we… No, we haven’t heard anything back from Twitter on that. And they still haven’t put the number for Sudan on the list. So, to be very honest with you I technically have given up. Unless we make financial sense to these companies I don’t think we matter to them. So. Yeah.
Moderator: Is there another question?
Audience 3: I’d love to know like, how is…or how frequent or like how common is the usage of like end-to-end encrypted networks or like, messenger services, etc. For example in the case of Ethiopia like, do you propagate that? Is that something that makes a lot of sense? I mean I get it that it doesn’t replace like social networks. But at least like, secure communication that’s not trackable… Yeah, just would love to hear more about that.
Taye: Yeah, that’s a great question. So the problem that we have with using secure networks like Tor and others is that if there are 20 million Internet users in your country and it’s only twenty people that are using it…you’re not being anonymous in any way. So that’s some of the problems that we’re having. So for instance for Signal we’ve been telling people like— All of the people in my family for instance have downloaded Signal. Not because they need it, it’s just to make sure that more people are using it.
So yes, so it helps. But the problem is that, especially when you’re also using those secure encrypted networks is that okay, let’s say I’m using PGP or GPG—whichever one. The minute that the intelligence officers—when they take you in and you’re being questioned and they know that you have this…when you’re being tortured you’ll give out your passwords. So in some contexts it also makes it extremely dangerous for you to use those tools, because they feel like you’re hiding something. So it depends on the context and in some of our work we don’t advocate for others to use that, especially if your network is actually monitored.
Audience 4: Thank you so much for your talk. I have a question. So you talked a lot about the dangers of technology, and especially social media. But don’t you also— Like personally, I always consider it as something positive, especially related to the Arab Spring. So do you also see some kind of opportunity not only in technology but like especially in social media? Thank you.
Taye: Yes, there are many uses for social media. And yeah I think that’s pretty obvious. It’s just that everybody’s trying to sort of feed us that digitalization technology’s gonna save us and make us all…not poor. So I… We could have a conversation about that, but I don’t think this is the platform that I want to talk about how social media has helped people, to be honest.
Moderator: Okay, thank you very much.
Taye: Awesome. Thanks.