On November 28, 2016, around 100 programmers, designers and other technologists met in San Francisco for the inaugural meeting of Bay Area Tech Solidarity. Our goal was to discuss constructive ways we could prepare for a Trump administration, and what we could do locally and in the companies we work for to mitigate some of his anticipated policies.
Participants are free to identify themselves, but have agreed not to identify other people.
The following are my notes from the event. If you'd like to participate in future BATS events, please email me or contact me on Signal (415 610 0231).
Any errors below should be attributed to my note-taking, rather than to the speakers or participants.
—Maciej Ceglowski, December 1 2016.
We're gathered together because there are still several weeks left before the Inauguration, and it seems wise not to waste this time. There are three goals for this meeting.
Hopefully this will be the first of many meetings.
Anyone who lives here in earthquake country knows that the right time to prepare and discuss things is not when the world is falling down around us, but when things are calm. In the best case, nothing will happen and we'll end up looking silly. That would be a wonderful outcome.
We don't know what will happen when Trump assumes power, but it seems prudent to take him at his word when he says he’s going to deport 11 million immigrants, create a registry of Muslims, introduce "extreme vetting" of visitors to the US, and turn a blind eye to police violence.
So we should prepare for those things.
Many of us here work at companies that collect a large amount of behavioral data. Consider how someone with full access to this data could use it against vulnerable people. Get together with your colleagues and really spec out this this scenario: technically adept people arrive with legal authority and get complete access to your company's data. What are the actual SQL queries they would run if they wanted to identify Muslims, or undocumented immigrants, or trans people?
Once you've figured that out, think about changes you can make to make that more difficult. I understand that companies collecting behavioral data can't change their entire business model, but there are many ways we can do it more safely. How do we throw sand in the gears? What kind of data are we storing that can be anonymized, or fed into machine learning models and discarded?
We should share ideas about how to lobby internally so that our companies make these changes. Upper management at companies like Google and Facebook isn’t doing much to respond to the threat of a Trump presidency. So let’s make our own plans.
The best way to not feel hopeless and scared is to work together, in our community, without waiting for bad things to happen.
In the past, the tech industry in SF has been pretty bad about local engagement. Let’s work within our community, and let’s hear from people who are already doing the work, and know these challenges well, so we can learn and make ourselves useful.
Four invited speakers were kind enough to join us and share their work.
Tech people typically ask if there's an app that can solve homelessness.
Some background: the Coalition for the Homeless has been around for 27 years, staffed by homeless or previously homeless people, working to protect the human rights of people forced to remain on the streets. It was started in late 1980's by frontline service providers.
The 80's saw a massive reduction to housing, with support at the Federal level cut by 74%, at a time when there were shifts away from industrial economy and a weakening of the social safety net. It's not like a million women and children in the 80's decided it would be cool to live in the streets. Back then people got the connection between these changes and rising homelessness.
Over time that's shifted. Now people talk about personal failures, or that something is wrong with homeless people. When we were starting we were really frustrated that the response was an emergency response. It ignored root causes and voices of homeless people themselves. Over time we've seen that response to homelessness spread across the country. Local government has been saddled with a problem that the Feds have given up on. There was no talk on poverty in this election. The Federal government has washed its hands of the homeless.
Local government, not feeling they have the tax base to address the problem, have said "we don't have the money so we'll use the police to manage the homeless population." They've worked to push homeless people out of the centers of commerce and tourist areas. The city response is always to send police. We spent 20M last year on police response, issued 11K citations for resting or sleeping on the street. Homeless people can't pay these fines and are saddled with debt. We've tried locally to create housing, and heard a lot of talk in the media, with little result.
San Francisco is a progressive city, so the wedge issue that gets used in political campaigns here is homelessness. That drives conservatives to the polls. We saw a series of anti-homeless measures on the ballot, and a shifting balance of power. Wiener is going to the state Senate, funded by the financial industry and areas of the tech industry. The agenda is about commercial interests more than homeless people. We deal with lots of vitriol and misinformation, and this election was no different.
Trump hates on immigrants at the Federal level, we hate on the homeless at the local level. We show pictures of people shooting up without their permission, use the rape of women as an excuse to take away peoples tents. There have been billboards about homeless people spreading venereal disease. This affects the psyche of folks.
Everyone assumes that there's nothing we can do, that more homeless will come, But the overwhelming majority of homeless people who are here became homeless as San Franciscans.
Nevertheless, people hammer on the point that the homeless are flocking to SF. This is not true. Only 1.3% came here for the services. The overwhelming majority of homeless people are people of color. 30% identify as LGBT. 67% have a disability. None of these folks are OK to scapegoat individually, but homelessness makes it okay to hate on the population.
Less than 3% on SF budget is spent on homelessness. We are forcing people to stay on the streets through sheer neglect. They are losing 25 years off their lives, through elevated risk for every kind of disease.
Some of the disease risk is less obvious—the homeless are at higher risk to HIV, because it's hard to hold on to condoms when the city is taking your stuff. We're spending more money to keep people homeless than it would cost to house them, given to the health costs involved. We're cursed in SF with high housing prices, but blessed in that we are very affluent. We need the city to double what they spend, house 6K more people, and make a massive prevention effort. No one should lose their home because they missed rent one month.
Some people are spending 80% of income on housing. Landlords are quick to evict. There is lots of work to do on prevention. This includes housing subsidies, to get rid of the gap between costs and income. We've doubled the population of homeless children in last 5 years. 1 in 25 public school students are homeless. We had heartbreak this election, lost by two points, will try again.
We know that Trump's top three priorities are to severely cut Pell grants to low-income people, cut unemployment benefits, and eliminate free preschool funding.
Also, San Francisco faces a loss of funding due to being a sanctuary city. Homelessness is a likely place where funding will be cut as a result.
We have so many people in this room, and a lot of power in this room. Do a mini-campaign of phone calls to the mayor. Double the homeless budget now. This group could do it. We need people who are housed to make phone calls, the city will listen. They're already hearing from the homeless and homeless advocates, they need to hear from you.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). 740K across the country, 200K in California living and working with work permits, going to school, earning money, getting drivers' licenses, helping to support their families. They are now very anxious—not only because the program may end—but because they gave all of their info to immigration, after being told it was confidential.
That's one thread.
Refugees who fled persecution traditionally have been treated better than other immigrant groups. They are admitted to the country under the principles of international and domestic law. We haven't needed to worry about them. Now we don't know how our refugee policies will change—whether refugees from particular countries will be admitted or whether refugee admissions will stop altogether. We are also deeply concerned about proposals to register Muslims or individuals from certain countries. Even citizens are concerned that they may be asked to register.
California is home to about 2.3 million undocumented immigrants. We have worked to get access to health care for kids regardless of status, access to driver's licenses (800K people), higher education, in-state tuition. And now how do you think people are feeling?
People are scared to death. Children are extremely anxious and some are afraid to go to school—health care providers have been asking how to help them. No one knows if the DACA program will be eliminated, or if the government is going to change immigration and refugee policy. Some people you work with may also feel uncertain about their future.
SF has reacted by saying. "Fight back! This isn't us, this isn't California, we're all in it together." There are now few if any checks and balances at the Federal level. San Francisco and other cities have been threatened with loss of Federal funding, under threats to withdraw money from sanctuary cities. The state also could lose billions if the federal health care law is repealed or revised.
So one place where we could use help is that we need money to fill the gaps—to make sure that services can continue for all residents. Another thing we can do is to help in the fight to save DACA, document the benefits of immigrants living and working here—and send a message that investing in immigrants is good for our economy and our communities.
A few words on detention. People in the US are held in jails for immigration violations, which is a civil and not a criminal offense. There are 200 or more immigration jails, some of them county jails, some of them run by large corporations. There is no right to counsel. If you're in immigration jail, you don't have a right to a lawyer. Let's say you don't speak English, you show up in court in shackles, you get an interpreter but no lawyer, and that's how you fight your case.
If you don't have a lawyer and are detained, you have a 3% chance of winning your case. This includes asylum seekers, or even lawful permanent residents who have lived here 20+ years with a clean criminal record except, for example, a DUI or a marijuana offense committed many years in the past.
If you have a lawyer and are not detained, by contrast, you have a 70%+ chance of winning your case. New York is much better than California in this respect. NY has a program in place offering universal representation for every person detained. The Bay Area hasn't done that yet. SF's public defender has proposed to hire immigration lawyers to defend immigrants in court. This is worth supporting!
I am Muslim, born in Massachusetts. I love my faith.
Muslims in the US are very scared. Both my mom and wife wear the hijab, so I'm always worried they'll be attacked in the street. Even in the Bay Area it's a concern. Of course I encourage them to continue; it's important not to be affected. A few years ago, my mom and sister were at a farmers' market in Boston, what seems like a liberal setting. A big guy ran up and called them terrorists, started spitting at them. My 60 year old mom and 20 year old sister were really intimidated. My sister cried for the rest of the day.
People stood by and watched. I give them the benefit of the doubt; they were taken off guard. We have to be aware of our surroundings and be ready to act. It takes mental preparation, so you don't end up reacting like a deer in the headlights.
But random attacks aren't what's scariest. Scarier is institutionalized racism. The creation of a Muslim registry is obviously just the first step. It's a PR campaign to spread the idea that Muslims are a special group that can be discriminated against.
The next step is destruction of institutions. Demonization of CAIR, even though it's an extraordinarily respectful institution. These things happen in phases.
Before this election, I thought these things could never happen in this country. But now after seeing Trump's cabinet appointments, I know we have to be very vigilant.
The most important thing for the tech crowd is to get educated. As a techie I read about technology, and that's important, but we need to expand our perspective and read things outside the domain.
I've started watching more documentaries. I recommend 13th on Netflix, which talks about the prison-industrial complex and the decimation of black America. The same patterns are being applied to the Muslim community. Blacks have had it the hardest.
It's important to understand what Muslims actually believe in. Get educated.
Demographics: 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. 23% of the world population. In the US there are 3.3 million Muslims, or 1% of the population. The largest Muslim ethnicity is the US is African Americans. 10-30% of the slaves brought here were Muslim. A good book to start with is Islam for Dummies. Get a good translation of the Quran—I recommend the Oxford University Press edition by Abdel Haleem. Reach out to mosques. The largest mosque on the West Coast is in Santa Clara, and they welcome visitors. Muslims are happy to take questions; if you have uncomfortable questions, ask away, we love talking about it.
Be part of the data privacy movement. Make it easier for normal people to use anonymization tools.
The second half of our meeting was a set of three-minute lightning talks, followed by a moderated discussion. I've grouped these notes thematically.
If you want to convince tech companies to donate money, the distinction between private and publicly held companies is important.
Privately held companies with strong CEOs will just give money for ethical reasons.
Publicly held companies will only respond to monetary arguments. The best way to convert an ethical into a monetary argument is by taking advantage of the fact that companies want to keep employees happy and productive. An important thing for many techies is that their companies follow their ethics.
The practical implication of aspirational company credos like "don't be evil" is that employees will want to see costly signals that their company shares their values. Take statements of corporate values seriously, and quote them back verbatim when fundraising.
There's a new fundraising argument we can make in the era of Trump: no one can make money without the rule of law! When your business is nationalized, executives are imprisoned, or if people view your product as dangerous to use, you don't earn a profit. So donate money to preserve rule of law.
The current best advice for people experiencing a campaign of online harassment is Gmail, Wordpress.com, two-factor auth, scrubbing data wherever possible from data brokers.
Basic hygiene does make stuff better. Take an economic perspective when evaluating your risk exposure: is the thing you're doing worth the $3M it costs to get an iPhone 0day?
What we don't know yet of what our own gov't will be like as an adversary. They can easily generate 0days and how to defend against that threat is not yet clear.
Government is very slow! Things take months, there is paperwork. Hiring takes a while, so does hiring, and so do hiring freezes.
Government agencies have a mix of appointees and career positions. There's a balance between presidential priorities and career bureaucrats.
Governments are bad at communicating, so you have to dig to find stuff. But they are also obligated by to listen to you. If you're concerned about voting machines, look up NIST standards, you can comment on those things.
Regulations take time to change. Watch federalregister.gov. You can get an RSS feed for a search term there and monitor it.
Meaningful comments on government proposals matter.
Consider working for city and state government. They have a lot of opportunity to resist Federal laws. California and SF are hiring, they're bad at telling you that they're hiring, but they are.
Asking "how I can help solve problems" has worked much better than presenting solutions derived from first principles. Tomorrow there will be a meeting at Stanford, where pillars of the industry, without getting advice and information, will attempt to dictate solutions. These will fail.
We need the influential people to align themselves with activists. If there is a vacuum of leadership, the same old Silicon Valley types will just parachute n with proposed solutions. We need to provide a framework that the right thing is to be listening to existing experts.
Prosecutors can get grand juries to issue subpoenas to internet companies. Grand juries tend to be composed of elderly citizens that follow the prosecutor's requests. A grand jury will indict just about anything:
Wachtler, who became the state's top judge earlier this month, said district attorneys now have so much influence on grand juries that "by and large" they could get them to "indict a ham sandwich."
DHS and other executive agencies can issue administrative subpoenas. Federal judges have a lot of independence.
Data requests are governed by the Stored Communications Act and limited by the Fourth Amendment.
When law enforcement asks for data, tech companies tend not to push back. Pushing back is costly, and involves a lot of legal work. EFF publishes an annual report card called Who Has Your Back?
A typical request from a local police department will ask: who created this content, what else came from this email address, what else came from this IP. If you have greppable things in your logs, people will be smart enough to ask for it by subpoena. Since responding to these requests is a cost center, companies expend the minimal necessary effort to fight it.
The Internet Archive has had some success resisting subpoenas, has resisted at least one National Security Letter (NSL). A big part of this is their willingness to litigate. They are also free to anonymize and perform data manipulation, eliminate what they don't need to keep, because they don't have to track users over long periods of time.
For other companies, tracking is the entire business model.
It's important to talk to librarians who were around in 2001. There is a great librarian tradition of destroying client records before the Patriot Act came into effect. Librarians are boss.
One ISP had success adopting a policy of automatically notifying people when they received a subpoena, unless there was a gag order. This had a deterrent effect. It was very helpful to work the policy out ahead of time, and simply tell police "this is what we always do". It is important to think things through before the warrant arrives.
We've learned how to think like spammers and a criminals, and defend against that. We still have to learn how to think like an authoritarian government.
Some communities in the US already have experience of authoritarian rule. Reagan muzzled the Centers for Disease Control, they were forbidden to talk about how HIV was spread, while the epidemic was killing people.
Many people in tech have direct experience of authoritarian rule in other countries. We'd better learn from them.
Cautionary example of the pre-war Dutch database that made the Nazis work much easier during the Occupation. The death rate was 73% for Dutch Jews, compared to 40% in neighboring Belgium. Further reading: The Dark Side of Numbers and IBM and the Holocaust. Vital to remember that the first modern genocide, the Armenian Genocide, started as a mass deportation.