In another year of masking up, local communities have found enough footing to push back on surveillance tech and fight for our digital rights. Members of the Electronic Frontier Alliance have continued to innovate by organizing workshops and trainings for neighbors, overwhelmingly online, and made important headway on issues like more equitable broadband access, surveillance oversight, and even banning government use of face recognition.
The Electronic Frontier Alliance (EFA) is an information-sharing network of local groups that span a range of organizational models. Some are fully volunteer-run, some are affiliated with a broader institution (such as student groups), and others are independent non-profit organizations. What these groups all share in common is an investment in local organizing, a not-for-profit model, and a passion for five guiding principles:
- Free Expression: People should be able to speak their minds to whomever will listen.
- Security: Technology should be trustworthy and answer to its users.
- Privacy: Technology should allow private and anonymous speech, and allow users to set their own parameters about what to share with whom.
- Creativity: Technology should promote progress by allowing people to build on the ideas, creations, and inventions of others.
- Access to Knowledge: Curiosity should be rewarded, not stifled.
Since first forming in 2016, the alliance has grown to 73 member groups across 26 states. It’s not possible to review everything these grassroots groups have accomplished over the last year, but this post highlights a number of exemplary victories. We hope they will inspire others to take action in the new year.
Pushing Back on Police Surveillance
EFA members have been vital in the fight against government use of face recognition technology. This type of biometric surveillance comes in many forms, and is a special menace to civil liberties. Since 2019, when San Francisco became the first city to ban government use of this technology, more than a dozen municipalities nationwide have followed suit, including Portland and Boston last year. In 2021, these victories continued with the passage of bans in Minneapolis and Kings County, Washington, which were won by a close collaboration between EFA members, local ACLU chapters, other local community groups, and the support of EFF.
Alliance member Restore the Fourth Minnesota (RT4MN), and the rest of the Twin Cities-based Safety Not Surveillance (SNS) coalition, successfully advocated to pass their ban on government use of face recognition technology in Minneapolis. During the year-long fight for the ban, the coalition built widespread community support, took the argument to the local press, and won with a unanimous vote from the city council. The SNS coalition didn’t rest on its laurels after this victory, but instead went on to mobilize against increased state funding to the local fusion center, and to continue to advocate for a Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) ordinance. These campaigns and other impressive work coming out of Minnesota are covered in more detail in EFF’s recent interview with a RT4MN organizer.
In California, Oakland Privacy won one of the first victories of the year, when its City Council voted to strengthen their anti-surveillance bill in January. The Citizens Privacy Coalition of Santa Clara County has been organizing for CCOPS policies across the San Francisco Bay, fighting for democratic control over the acquisition and use of surveillance tech by local government agencies.
In Missouri, Privacy Watch St. Louis has taken a leadership role in pushing for a CCOPS bill that was introduced in the city council earlier this year. The group also worked with the ACLU of Missouri to educate lawmakers and their constituents about the dangers and unconstitutionality of another bill, Board Bill 200, which would have implemented aerial surveillance (or “spy planes”) similar to a Baltimore program. Early this year, the city’s Rules Committee unanimously voted against the bill.
EFA members also targeted another dangerous form of police surveillance: acoustic gunshot detection, the most popular brand of which is ShotSpotter. One of the most prominent voices is Chicago-based Lucy Parsons Labs which has brought the harms to light in their research and use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Lucy Parsons Labs discusses this and more of their incredible work in their own year in review post. They went on to coordinate with Oakland Privacy and other EFA members to organize protests against another ShotSpotter program.
In New York City, alliance member Surveillance Technologies Oversight Project (STOP) uncovered a secret NYPD slush fund used to purchase invasive surveillance technology with no public oversight. In collaboration with Legal Aid NYC, STOP blew the whistle on $159 million of unchecked surveillance spending, ranging from face recognition to x-ray vans. Also, STOP, the Brennan Center, EFF, and other leading civil society advocates held the NYPD accountable for its inadequate compliance with the POST Act. The 2020 law required greater NYPD transparency in its implementations of surveillance technologies.
Defending User Rights
In addition to protecting privacy from state surveillance, EFA members also turned out to ensure users’ rights were protected from unfair and shady business practices.
In July, the Biden Administration instructed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to advance Right to Repair policies, leading to a rare public hearing and vote. Called on by fellow repair advocates such as iFixit, USPIRG, and other members of the repair association, EFA members were able to rapidly mobilize to submit public comments. Following the outpouring of support, the FTC unanimously voted to enforce Right to Repair law, to defend consumers’ rights to repair their own devices without the threat of being sued by the manufacturer or patent holder. The fight for Right to Repair is far from over for local advocates, with state legislation still being considered nationwide.
Back in Oakland, organizers successfully ensured the passage of a service provider choice ordinance by unanimous vote. The new law makes sure that Oakland renters are not constrained to the internet service provider (ISP) of their landlord, but can instead freely choose their own provider. This blocks the kickback schemes many landlords enjoy, where they share revenue with Big ISPs or receive other benefits in exchange for denying competitors physical access to rented apartments. As a result, residents are stuck with whatever quality and cost the incumbent ISP cares to offer. This win in Oakland replicates the earlier success in San Francisco and gives tenants a choice, and smaller local ISPs an opportunity to compete. In the fight for internet access, EFA members like the Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance have also been working to set up smaller local options to extend broadband access in Montana without relying on Big ISPs that often ignore rural areas.
Electronic Frontier Alliance members were also active in advocacy campaigns to press corporations to change policies that restrict consumer access and privacy. Several groups signed onto a letter calling on PayPal to offer transparency and due process when deciding which accounts to restrict or close.
And earlier this year, when Apple revealed plans to build an encryption backdoor into its data storage and messaging systems, many EFA groups leapt into action. They helped collect over 25,000 signatures in opposition. Also, in Portland, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, alliance members joined EFF and Fight for the Future in a nationwide series of rallies demanding Apple cancel their plans for these policies that could be disastrous for user privacy. This wave of pressure led Apple to retract some of its planned phone-scanning and pause its planned scanning of user iCloud Photos libraries.
While we celebrate each time Alliance members make headlines, we also recognize the extensive work they pour into strengthening their coalitions and building strong community defense. This is, of course, particularly difficult when we cannot safely come together in person, and organizers deal with extra hurdles to rebuild their work in an accessible online format.
Fortunately, in 2021 many allies hit their stride, and found opportunity in adversity. With so many local events going virtual, local groups leaned on their relationships in the EFA despite being in different parts of the country. These are just a few of the unique event collaborations we saw this year:
- Aspiration Tech again hosted their annual collaborative gathering of grassroots activists and software developers with their unique co-created convening
- Canal Alliance hosted a panel of partners, including EFF, Digital Marin, the Institute of Local Self Reliance, and Media Alliance, to discuss how communities can take action on the digital divide issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
- CyPurr Collective maintained their monthly Brooklyn Public Library events, connecting the community to digital security experts such as EFF’s Eva Galperin, Albert Fox Cahn from EFA member S.T.O.P., and 2021 Pioneer Award winner Matt Mitchell.
- EFF-Austin held many online workshops, including one featuring Vahid Razavi from Ethics in Tech for an event discussing ethical issues with companies in Silicon Valley.
- Ethics in Tech hosted several all-day events featuring other EFA members, including a recent event with Kevin Welch from EFF-Austin.
- Portland’s Techno-Activism Third Mondays hosted a number of great workshops, including a three-part panel on online privacy, why people need it, and how to fight for it.
- RT4MN hosted a number of workshops throughout the year, including a recent panel on drone and aerial surveillance.
- S.T.O.P. held great online panels online in collaboration with NYC partners, tackling topics that included: face recognition and predictive policing; how AI training causes law enforcement biases; how artists can organize against police surveillance; and punitive workplace surveillance faced by warehouse workers.
In addition to events hosted by EFA members, the EFF organizing team held space for EFA groups to collaborate remotely, including our first EFA Virtual Convening in August. In lieu of regular in-person meet-ups, which are essential to creating opportunities for mutual support, EFF hosted a virtual “World Café” style break-out session where EFA members and EFF staff could learn from each other’s work and brainstorm new future collaborative projects.
This past year we also had the opportunity to expand the alliance and establish a new presence in Montana, North Carolina, and Tennessee, by welcoming six impressive new members:
- Calyx Institute, New York, NY: A technology non-profit with the mission of developing, testing and distributing free privacy software, as well as working to bridge the digital divide.
- Canal Alliance, San Rafael, CA: Advocates for digital equity for immigrant communities.
- DEFCON Group 864, Greenville, NC: The newest DEFCON group in the alliance, with a mission to provide learning opportunities and resources for everyone interested in information security.
- Devanooga, Chattanooga, TN: A non-profit community group for current or aspiring developers and designers.
- Pacific Northwest Rural Broadband Alliance, Missoula, MT: A non-profit foundation dedicated to building fast, affordable, community-powered broadband networks.
- PrivaZy Collective, Wellesley, MA: A community-centered student group addressing online privacy issues as faced by Gen Zers.
The fight for our digital rights continues, and maintaining a robust and vigilant network of organizers is essential to that struggle. EFF will continue to work with groups dedicated to promoting digital rights in their communities, and offer support whenever possible. To learn more about how the EFA works, check out our FAQ page, and consider joining the fight by having your group apply to join us.
Learn more about some of our EFA members in these profiles:
This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2021.