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#PDF14 Preview: An Interview with Shauna Dillavou of CommunityRED

BY Sonia Roubini | Tuesday, May 13 2014

This #PDF14 speaker preview features Shauna Dillavou. Shauna is the executive director and cofounder of CommunityRED, an organization whose mission is to improve the digital security of journalists and activists in conflict zones. She previously worked as a global security analyst, focusing on the intersections of social media, politics, and transnational crime in Mexico and Latin America. At #PDF14, Shauna will be joining us a speaker on a breakout panel titled “Frontline Tech for Anti-Censorship and Anti-Surveillance.”

1. How did you come to be interested in tech and its impact on society?

When I was a researcher in Beijing, I had a lot of problems with the Internet - aside from the pedestrian desire to get on Facebook and watch American TV, when I was preparing for interviews with Chinese contemporary artists, my connection kept getting shut down. I knew the artists I was working with had a history as dissidents, but in 2008 things seemed so much more open. It shocked me that people in China didn’t know about their own history - and not just Tiananmen, but obviously less subversive stuff. That made it clear to me that freedom of speech and a free society was more than being able to Google "June 4th" and read a Wikipedia entry about the famous uprising, but really to read anything I wanted while in China about the country’s history.

2. What's the most satisfying part of your work?

Listen, a lot of the time people use fear to try and convince people they need to care about their data and where it goes and who might or could ever possibly be watching, reading, recording, databasing and searching. The fear approach tends to shut people down and make adoption of secure tools and practices impossible. What is rewarding is seeing people feel empowered to try tools and strategies, and to be open and willing to keep their data private, to secure themselves, to not give in to the fear, to not feel overwhelmed and give up. I love to be part of that feeling of empowerment.

3. If you've been to PDF in the past, what are your impressions?

PDF is an absolute passion-boost.

4. Can you give us an example of how a tool like CommunityRED can work to improve the security of people trying to communicate in conflict zones?

CommunityRED helps people by understanding where they're coming from, what they need, and how they communicate. In some cases we "prescribe" tools to help. We don't necessarily build tools - enough of those already exist and yet, there remain massive problems with secure and private communication. We're here to make the existing tools work for the people who need them. We believe private and secure communication is a basic human right.

CommunityRED helped connect diaspora Turkmen students, along with the Arzuw Foundation, a ground-level organization, to a tool that particularly suited their need for secure and decentralized communication that was decentralized. In order to deal with the low-bandwidth environment inside of Turkmenistan, they needed a tool that would help them avoid filtering or blocking, and yet was lightweight.

5. What are the key issues tech and politics/society to pay attention to at the moment?

Here in the US, we should be outraged by the amount of our data that is captured on a regular basis. This data is bought and sold for a premium, and we’re given none of the profit. I'd expect to be paid if my thoughts or opinions were recorded in a focus group or study; the amount of data gathered from our searches, buying habits and patterns, etc., dwarfs anything that could be gathered in an "official" way.

I think the biggest element to consider is the complacency argument I hear, which attempts to counter my privacy work: “if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to worry about.” I imagine that'd be true if an individual even KNEW the data that was being tracked, captured, recorded and bought and sold on them. But most of us have NO idea. Much like a car, we have no idea how the internet works. And we shouldn't have to. But, like cars, we should have some protections from cost-cutting manufacturers. To continue the car metaphor, seatbelts and other security measures should be made NORMS and RULES. At the moment, we're in a Model T going 40 mph with no seatbelts, doors, airbags, crash warnings, or even working brakes.