Imara Jones: Hi there. I’m Imara Jones, welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we tell Trans stories to save Trans lives. On behalf of everyone at TransLash, we are hoping that you are settling into the fall or the unofficial part of all. Well, we know that it can be a transitional time, and just are sending you the best as you move through that particular change.
Online spaces have always been a double-edged sword for trans people. On the one hand, they’re an essential lifeline, especially for those who are isolated in places or surrounded by people who are not supportive of who we are, these online communities and connections are essential. And, of course, the other side of the sword is the fact that it’s been a place of harassment of trans people, especially for those of high visibility such as Trace Trangeo[?], and Angelica Ross, who have been longtime recipients of online hate because of their mass visibility and work within our community. But over the summer, we started to notice something different happening. That is the targeting of trans people who were at much lower levels of visibility. They were susceptible and experienced trolling, and doxxing and swatting, which will explain and also greater forms of harassment beyond what was happening in some places to others.
And it got us to thinking that there’s something different that’s happening in terms of the online spaces for our community. Additionally, we noticed that not only were people at much lower levels the victims of what seem to be coordinated attacks, but so are the places which support us, such as Boston Children’s Hospital and educational institutions and, of course, libraries. And so we thought that it was really important to have a conversation to unpack exactly what’s happening in the cyber world for trans people and to figure out actions that we can all take to better protect ourselves as online harassment and targeting of trans people grows. And just a warning, this episode contains references to suicide and online abuse. So please do what you need to do to take care of yourself. But we think that this is an essential conversation and are excited to have it.
First, we’ll speak with Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyber Law Clinic about the history and current state of online harassment against Trans people.
Alejandra Caraballo: I think so many people have come out with story saying like, they have been afraid to talk or share stories or, or even be on social media because of this site. Who is that silencing? Well, silencing the most vulnerable and-and marginalized people.
Imara: Then we’ll talk to the lead cyber security instructor at the Tech Learning Collective about protecting ourselves online through keeping our communications and interactions more private.
Anonymous: It is much, much, much, easier today for a company to take advantage of you than it was. And that’s because they’re learning how and in ways, that it was not possible 20 years ago.
Imara: We’ll get to these important conversations soon but first, let’s celebrate as always with some trans joy.
With so much hate on the internet, we need to look towards our own community for innovation and leadership in the technology sector. Transtech is an incubator dedicated to educating and employing trans and gender non-conforming people who face barriers and education and the workplace. Founded by actress and businesswoman, Angelica Ross, Ms. Ross. Transtech provides career counseling and skill building designed to economically empower trans people. Their executive director, EC Pizarro III, explains how the group prioritises accesibility in their work.
EC Pizarro: I want trans people to feel that tech is a place for them that they belong in tech that they deserve to be in tech. So we make sure with all of our information that it is accessible to Trans individuals that are currently or formerly engaged in sex work because we understand that that is where society pushes a lot of trans people in order to survive. So, if someone comes to us, and they’re in sex work and they’re like, “I want to edit videos better, boost my social media engagement,” all of those different things are connected to tech. If you’re building a cosmetics line or building a clothesline, there are ways that you can leverage tech in your life to go from a survival mode to thriving.
Imara: EC, you and the other members of Transtech are trans joy.
I’m now joined by Alejandra Caraballo an instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyber Law Clinic. Her work sits at the intersection of technology and law and she has years of experience advocating for LGBTQ civil rights. Before working at Harvard, Alejandra was a staff attorney at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund and at the LGBTQ law project at New York assistance group.
She also previously served as the secretary of the LGBTQ rights committee of the New York City Bar Association, and was appointed as the first openly Trans community board member in Brooklyn. She received her JD from Brooklyn Law School. In addition to LGBTQ Justice, Alejandra’s interest include reproductive and disability rights, sex worker advocacy, quantum computing, and encryption. She’s written for the New York Times and wired about data privacy and a post-row era and as a vocal trans advocate on the internet, Alejandra unfortunately, has lots of personal experience dealing with online harassment. One of the things we’re talking about today. And also, Alejandra plays the guitar. Alejandra, thank you so much for joining me.
Alejandra: Thanks for having me, Imara.
Imara: Uh, people can’t see but you are doing this recording with your video on and your guitar is actually right behind you. So, it shows how close music is to your soul as well. It’s all the stuff we’re talking about today. Everyone listening knows that there’s [inhales] lots of harassment and targeting of trans people on social media and just in digital land writ large. I think people know that kind of in the back of their minds and maybe have experienced transphobia or something specific related to them, but, you know, everyone’s in their lives. And we may be missing the fact that there’s actually a much larger effort that is now appearing on the internet. It seems to drive in for the marginalized trans people. And so, I’m wondering if you can just give us kind of the lay of the land for people who don’t follow the ins and outs of this every day kind of what the situation is for trans people on social media platforms and on digital platforms as well.
Alejandra: Yeah, the internet and social media is like a double-edged sword, right? In one way, it offers a unique way for LGBTQ people, trans folks, queer folks, to create these kind of unique communities in ways that they never would have had before, you know, like the trans person growing up in Dodge City, Kansas can now have access and talk to fellow trans folks all over the country. In some ways, it’s bringing our communities closer and that there is a positive aspect to it. On the other hand, there is kind of like the dark mirror version of that. Where essentially, it also connects these kind of hateful vile groups and people who hate LGBTQ people. It’s not just limited to LGBTQ folks, but primarily is very acute around LGBTQ people in-in this time. And it really provides a mechanism to start what was commonly starting to be known as networked harassment.
It used to be, you would post a comment, you may get a few folks saying some nasty words. They’d move on. It’s not great. I don’t want to minimize it but that kind of, I think was most people’s experience with what the nastiness of the internet was but more and more commonly what we’re actually starting to see is this kind of effort. The more concentrated, centralized network harassment that is, it kind of has a nexus around big social media influencers. As an offshoot, we’re seeing kind of dark web groups kind of organize this network to harassment to basically engage in cyber stalking, doxxing, harassment, threats, all kinds of stuff.
You have accounts like Libs of TikTok, Matt Walsh instigating the groomer libel. They’ve been basically trying to equate LGBTQ people with pedophilia. It’s not a new attack by any means, it’s as old as time, basically, you know, there’s the Anita Bryant stuff from 1978. But what’s new is like they basically have this word that they were able to latch on to-to create like trolling tactic.
You know, really what we’re seen over the last year is this kind of like vicious trolling of going after prominent, or basically, any trans person on social media and trolling them and calling them a groomer, calling them a pedophile, all of those things, just like very heinous accusations. Just solely based off of their gender identity or sexual orientation. And, you know, it’s become even more weaponized because now, this is starting to go from just social media to real worlds, more physical locations, I think, is a better way to phrase it. Like, as we saw this week with the arrest of Catherine Levy who called in a bomb threat to a children’s hospital over their gender-affirming care programming. And that was basically a campaign led by Libs of TikTok, Billboard Chris and-and Matt Walsh, and Chris Ruffo. They’re really instigating this kind of stochastic violence, um, and stochastic terror where-where they pick these targets. They use incendiary language, dehumanizing rhetoric, demonization, all of those things. And basically raise the temperature so high that they basically increase the probability that actual physical violence will occur.
Imara: So you’ve given us this arc of like the way in which this moves from these coordinated conversations online and organized targeting of people and how it then shows up in real life. But one example on social media how this unfolds is, of course, Libs of TikTok and the way in which they targeted Boston Children’s Hospital and the way in which that ultimately led to this bomb threat. And so, I’m wondering if you can just talk to us about Libs of TikTok how they work, and what the impact of them targeting this children’s hospital was on the people that worked there, on the people that received care from everything that you’ve been able to learn.
Alejandra: Yeah, and one of the things I kind of want to always give a primer because I’m always surprised that this becomes a point of confusion. Libs of TikTok is not a TikTok account. [laughs]
Imara: Twitter account.
Alejandra: So this account’s run by Chaya Raichik who is a former realtor in Brooklyn who came out of the Habad community, which is part of the Orthodox community. And it was really starting early last year that things started to pick up after January 6th, she started really reposting a lot of content. It got picked up and boosted by a few people. And then Joe Rogan basically gave her a shout-out. She had been anonymous at that time. And then starting in October or November of last year when we saw the stuff going on in Loudoun County Virginia, there, there was like this kind of renewed animus around trans issues and LGBTQ issues in schools that like seem to be like a-a fertile plain to kind of spread this kind of hate, and it was being rewarded by the algorithms.
And so, she really started doubling down that she started using the term groomer. And at that point, I kind of broke open into the mainstream like she helped popularize a kind of groomer libel. It was her tweet that kind of brought it over to Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Ron DeSantis who labeled the Don’t Say Gay bill, and anti-grooming bill. It basically gave the imprimatur of a state government official like basically sanctioning this kind o-of rhetoric. Um, and so that’s when it really broke open and then in April, Taylor Lorenz published a story, you know, popularizing Who Shall I Right Check was because a few days before her story, most of Twitter knew who she was because of few researchers had uncovered who she was. Um, and so was not Taylor Lorenz that doxter or anything of the sort. She just popularized what would she had already seen on social media. And that receives one of the most intense pushbacks from the right wing I’ve e-, I’ve ever seen on social media. I mean, it was- it was 30-minute monologue by Tucker Carlson. I was featured on it briefly. Pretty much every right-wing social influencer basically pushing back. And I, like to this day, like Taylor Lorenz like, still has to keep her replies limited because she still being subject to massive amounts of harassment. Her family has been stalked. Threatened all kinds of something, not just her.
And then starting in August, Libs Of TikTok decided to start targeting Children’s Hospitals. They started putting out misleading videos with very inflammatory rhetoric and editorialisations. And for many of us online who had seen what had happened around drag events, what had happened around school events that get popularized, it became an escalation. Because we knew that this would bring violent threats, harassment, all kinds of stuff to a children’s hospital. It was already like alarm bells ringing that like, this was going to become a broader issue and stoke violence. Immediately, there were threats being made. Essentially providers there were being threatened. People couldn’t even get in contact with their doctors for refills because the phone lines were jammed. And so we kind of saw this like, immediate effort around it.
And one of the things I was saying consistently on Twitter was like, “Twitter safety needs to do something because if they don’t, this is going to escalate.” And then on August 29th, is when we saw the first bomb threat against Boston Children’s. This was entirely a predictable result. Every single person who had been following this account for the last six to seven months knew this is exactly what was going to happen, the minute they started targeting a children’s hospita.l And this is, you know, been months of people asking when is Twitter going to do something about this because it’s-it’s disrupting primarily LGBTQ people’s lives. Teachers are being fired. Pride events are being canceled. Drag shows are being canceled. Bars are having to close down because of threats. Support groups are being canceled because of threats.
It is creating a campaign of terror across the LGBTQ community and you can directly correlate it to Libs of TikTok. It’s being bankrolled by Seth Dillon who runs the Babylon Bee. But there’s a lot of implicit support by Christina Pushaw and Governor DeSantis in Florida, and obviously, Tucker Carlson. Every time Libs of TikTok has been locked out or suspended, he immediately features it on his show. Essentially, they’ve gotten themselves enough powerful allies in the conservative media, in the conservative movement that despite this clear link to real-world harm of violence, threats, harassment, Twitter refuses to act. And, at this point, it’s likely going to take a provider being murdered or a mass casualty event at a LGBTQ community center or clinic or, you know, something else targeted forTwitter to act.
Imara: Do you feel that that’s coming?
Alejandra: Oh, I-I absolutely feel like it co-, it could happen any day.
Imara: You’ve described how this works on a platform that everyone can see. So Libs of TikTok, it’s north of 1 million followers. It’s on Twitter. Everyone can see it. And we can see kind of the campaign’s that they’re engaging in and the impact. But then, there are other dark fora on the internet that are not apparent that people aren’t seeing that become the basis for targeted harassment, as you say. The way the people in the far-right can use these platforms to coordinate and target trans people, trans institutions, whatever they want. And I’m wondering if you can just give us an example of how that works. And I mean, Kiwi Farms is the one that springs to mind for me, but because you’re so steeped in this world, there may be another that stands out even more.
Alejandra: I don’t think there’s one that is going to stand out more than Kiwi Farms. They-They really were the far out there outlier in terms of this kind of organized stalking and harassing. And I think it’s about time that they were exposed to the world for what they were. They had been running a years-long campaign of terror against trans people. It’s not a very big site, at most it has a few thousand consistent users. It is-It is not a huge site, only folks that, that really knew about it went there. Really what it-what it was, it was like if you wanted to dox someone, if you wanted to cyber stalk someone, you could request a thread. And basically for a lot of anti-trans folks, it’s a one-stop shop to go and get their information to threaten and harass them.
When I say that nearly basically every single trans person with a platform that I know how to thread or was targeted by Kiwi Farms, it was basically every single one. I think there was an unspoken thing for a long time where if you started going over 5,000, 10,000 followers on Twitter and you were a trans person, you better watch out because beyo-, you might get on the radar of this site. And for people who aren’t familiar, like what they were doing is-s basically, they would start threads on people where it was just dedicated to a specific person. They dox their home address, their phone number, their employer, basically everything about them. And particularly with trans folks, they would then start to try and get them fired from their jobs. Try to go after and dox their family and threaten their family and friends so that they-they basically start getting isolated. They try to get them kicked out of their housing, calling their landlords. It was basically how much can you fuck with this person. And the end goal was to get them to commit suicide.
The end in this site had a body count. Three that are officially confirmed. But for my understanding, and talking with a lot of other folks, and people have reached out to me, there are several other people that have been targeted by the site that committed suicide, but did not have any sort of platform. Essentially like, it was just kind of sick and twisted site that was dedicated to cyber stalking people. And the biggest problem is for folks who found themselves targeted by this, there was no recourse. One of the most mask off moments over the last few weeks as Kiwi Farms was dropped by Cloudflare was how much the gender-critical movement has been rallying around Kiwi Farms are being upset that they lost the site. And I had known for the longest time that there was definitely a lot of overlap. But I was kind of shocked to the extent that people were bemoaning the loss of the site on gender-critical forms. So, basically, they knew, if there was a prominent trans person that they disliked and disagreed with, the way that they could go after them was go on Kiwi farms and get a thread started about them.
Imara: Right, to say that the way that the campaign got them offline was that they got Cloudflare and another firm that provides kind of the essential internet security protection that you need just to be on the internet to be allowed on the internet, they got those firms to drop that so that that site was effectively pushed off the internet.
Imara: Can you… What is doxing?
Alejandra: [sighs] It has varied meanings in specific contexts. Like if you ever an anonymous user and someone unveils your identity, just your name, that’s can be considered doxing, um, if you use an anonymous profile.
Imara: But in its most extreme in the way that people fear it, what… [inaudible]
Alejandra: Yeah, it is most extreme. What ends up happening is people will post your name, your phone number, your email address, your social security number, your driver’s license number, pictures of your house. It’s meant to intimidate people that like, here’s a very easy place to find exactly where you live, how to get in contact with you. And if anybody wants to do harm, this is where they need… This is where they can go to find it.
Imara: Right and that information once it’s posted out on a place like Kiwi Farms, anyone can use it. What’s swatting?
Alejandra: So swatting is essentially where someone calls in a threat and they tie it to somebody who is the target. So, like the classic one is, they’ll use like an AI-generated voice to call the local 911, uh, where somebody lives and say, “I just shot somebody. And I have a gun and I don’t, you know, I’m going to hurt more people and duh, duh, duh, duh, you know, this is my address and here’s my name.” Which like, nobody does that, but the police can’t not take that seriously. And given the way, the police are militarized these days, you know, they show up with a SWAT team. And it can be incredibly deadly because the person doesn’t know this is happening. They could just be in bed. They could be just laying- sitting on the couch and-and they’re startled. And the police think that they’re making some kind of move for a weapon and they get shot and killed and this has actually happened. And like, people have died from this. It should be constituted attempted murder, right? And so it’s a particularly heinous tactic and the problem is law enforcement oftentimes is-is-is ignorant of-of this reality and they’d- they oftentimes don’t try to take proactive steps to limit the use of this.
Imara: There are people in organizations. And if they decide that you can’t be on a platform, you’re not a platform. Or if they decide you can’t be on the internet, you’re not on the internet. That is to say, there is a way to stop this online harassment. And even with that, you know, horrible things can happen. Such as, you know, Chloe Sagal, the way that she died was, she felt so harassed that she actually self-immolate. She set herself on fire. And my question is why if a person sets themselves on fire and it’s directly tied to the harassment that they received from a place like kiwi Farms, that was incessant that drove them to this behavior. Why wasn’t that enough to get a place like Kiwi Farms kicked off the internet? Why wasn’t that enough?
Alejandra: Partially, it’s-it’s transmisogyny, it’s transphobia. It is just a lack of understanding. It is also the types of people who run these tech companies. Matthew Prince is, you know, from as far as I can tell very, uh, like, very much interested in this kind of far-right Libertarian ideas of like, you know, absolutism around free speech. They’ll say, “Well, we need to defend their right to say this, despite the fact that in reality, this limits the speech of others.” I think so many people have come out with story saying like, they have been afraid to talk or share stories or, or even be on social media because of this site. Who was that silencing? Well, silencing the most vulnerable and marginalized people.
Imara: If you were testifying before Congress and they said, “Alejandra, give us the top three things that we can do right now to make sure that this harassment ends.” What would it be? What would you say?
Alejandra: Uh, first thing Paso’s Elizabeth Warren’s Digital Privacy Act to basically stop data brokers from selling and sharing personal information that they scrape. No-No other country has it to this extent to allow for recourse with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a similar style take down for personal information that’s used for the purposes of harassment, otherwise the site to become liable. And three, better training and understanding and I hate this because I’m very much someone who’s an abolitionist, but given where we’re at, we need a better understanding of cyberstalking, digital harassment, and threats on the internet, and the only law enforcement agency that has the capabilities, the resources, and the jurisdiction to go after it is the FBI. So we need more expanded FBI efforts around this kind of digital network to harassment.
Imara: Well, Alejandra, thank you so much for joining us and for, not only working in this field, through the Harvard Cyber Law Clinic, where you have the ability to actually take on some of these cases but also, for constantly putting yourself out there and making yourself, you know, by way of your voice, a target by speaking out on these issues. I just want to thank you so much for everything that you do both in your job and outside of your job to help make the cyber world safer for trans people. Thank you so much.
That was Alejandra Caraballo of Harvard’s Cyber Law Clinic.
[background music palying]
Imara: I now want to welcome the lead cybersecurity instructor at the Tech Learning Collective, a technology school for radical organizers in New York City. This guest has asked to remain anonymous for this conversation. As a cybersecurity instructor, she helps students think more holistically about their personal security and is experienced and helping fellow trans people secure their private communication channels. Thank you so much for joining me. This is our first anonymous interview on the TransLash Podcast. So thank you for joining us again, anonymously.
Anonymous: Thank you very much for reaching out and also being willing to do this in a more pseudonymous anonymous way.
Imara: Absolutely. Well, first of all, I’m really happy because we get to get your expertise. The expertise that you normally share in your classroom for our listeners. There’s growing online harrasment of trans people in more targeted and organized ways and is a growing area of concern. So before we get into some of your tips and tools of the trade that can help people who are listening protect themselves, I’m wondering what led you first of all, to the field of cyber security and second, the radical choice for our time to be anonymous.
Anonymous: So, my interest in cybersecurity began not through computers or through security or through anything of that nature, it actually started from political organizing about, I want to say 10 to 15 years ago or so. I started getting very politically vocal online on a number of issues, obviously gender justice was a big one for me as a trans person. It became very apparent very quickly that I needed to have a better understanding of what information was out there and how to keep myself safe if I was going to be very vocal online, right? Anyone who’s politically vocal, sexually vocal, a woman as, you know, we face a lot more harassment online. And it’s important to be aware of that if you’re going to make the choice to speak up. I did not have a good understanding of how that was going to affect me when I started.
Fast forward a little bit. When I first came to New York City, I have met a number of people kind of at the right time, at the right place who were also interested in this. This is after Occupy Wall Street days and the group of us, mostly self-identified genderqueer anarchists decided that we needed to sort of have this little mutual self-education group around this topic to help ourselves learn more but also to help other people who were asking us questions are starting to ask us questions, about OPSEC and information security and how to stay private online and how to like identify threats and know what to do if your phone’s been confiscated by cops, for example. And so we started this mutual self-education group and that spiraled into what now became Tech Learning Collective. A lot of the people who I started Tech Learning Collected with are actually not from a computer background. Because Tech Learning Collective was designed originally to make it possible for people who would otherwise feel alienated from a tech education, feel less alienated from it.
Imara: Why do you think that people who are not from a tech background are better at grabbing cyber security concepts?
Anonymous: First of all, people who are taught to think along a checklist, like for example, if you’re going to cybersecurity school at Sam’s or any one of these security schools, you’re basically given a task list, and then like school, you’re expected to go through this wrote process of do this, then this, then this. That’s not a way to start people thinking about how to think outside the box, right? You can point a tool at some website or some target and hit go and see what it says. But that’s not you thinking about how it works. Queer people, philosophers, and creative-minded individuals, they’re always thinking about how things are actually presented to them. What’s real, what’s not real, right? These are the kinds of thinking that you have to do as a cyber security professional because you’re looking at this intersection between two things.
Imara: Let’s go into some tips and key guidance for people who want to become more secure in their digital lives. What are some of the key things that you suggest- understanding that there is cybersecurity writ large, your information that’s out there, there’s also security in social media. So if you’re going to have a digital life, what are some of the key things that you recommend people do in order to become more secure?
Anonymous: There’s actually not that much that you have to do to be relatively safe. And when I say relatively safe, what I mean is safe for most cases most of the time, right, in a country like the United States. If you have a messaging application like if you’re communicating with friends, use Signal Private Messenger, signal.org is where you get it. It’s a free app. The second thing is install an ad blocker in your browser. Something that will block trackers and thieves. These are free and easy if you’re using for example Google Chrome or Firefox has a great one called uBlock Origin. It’s just a free add-on, plug it in in your browser when you’re on a laptop. And if you’re on a phone, you can use something similar. There’s also add-ons for your mobile browsers, same exact name. If you use those tools, in general, you’re stopping a lot of like just basically passive collection of your information as long as you keep in mind that like when you’re using something like say Facebook or Instagram, there’s always a third party in that conversation which is, of course, the service provider, IE Instagram. Like if you post Instagram, Instagram knows what you’re doing because you’re telling them what you’re doing. That make sense?
Anonymous: But with just those two things, you’re pretty decently protected fom any kind of like passive adversary in that sense if what you’re trying to do is protect yourself in general. A lot of people are more targeted than just that. And of course, the more targeted you are, the more you have to take steps to defend yourself because you need stronger shields or stronger walls, right, to block someone who’s much more committed to trying to do something bad.
There’s a couple of those quick things you can do. Like I mentioned, you can use a couple of these tools but the more important thing is to understand what these tools are doing. If I gave you a powertool, like, I don’t know, like a chainsaw or a drill, right? It’s one thing to know how the tool works and what it does but you also need to know how to use it. Privacy is not just what not to share. It’s also why you’re not sharing it. Both of those things are something that you should have in mind. And a lot of people haven’t been taught and don’t really have a lot of good role models for thinking about how to think about their privacy and security. In infosec professional…
Imara: You mean that, infosec meaning?
Anonymous: An information security.
Anonymous: Yeah, so like in this field, right? The way that we think and teach security is that we break down that concept into three separate properties that you can have in a system or not have in a system. These are what we call the CIA Triad, confidentiality, integrity and availability and a good security system will have all three.
Imara: Take us through what each of those words mean.
Anonymous: So, confidentiality is the thing that I think most people think about when they think of security. It’s the idea that only the person who’s intended to be able to read a message can actually read it. So if I’m right, if you and I are having a conversation and this is private to you, right? Like let’s say we go to the, you know, Speakeasy and we get a drink and we’re like, “Hey you know, I want to tell you something really secret, please don’t share it,” right? That’s a confidential conversation or should it be. In the analog world, right, in person, we might do this at a loud bar because at a loud bar it’s hard to hear us if you’re too far away from us, right? And so we might go to a corner and have like a little whisper.
In the digital world, you need to do this over remote distances. And you need to do this through other relays. In other words, for me to have a conversation with you right now, literally recording this podcast, we’ve got a bunch of other computers that are not yours, and not mine, in between you and me. So, any one of those hundreds of machines might listen to our conversation. So we have to do something in order to prevent those other machines from being able to read our message. So that’s confidentiality. Does that follow? Does that make sense?
Imara: Mm-hmm. And then integrity, what’s Integrity in this world?
Anonymous: The difference between the analog world and the digital world is this next question, which is when you receive a closed envelope, how do you know that closed envelope that you got that you picked up is the same exact envelope I closed? If I’m sending you a message, one thing that I want to make sure about is that you receive the same message that I sent. You don’t want it to be changed at all. And so what that means is, we have to verify not only that the message wasn’t read in transit, but that it also wasn’t changed and that it came from who you thought it was. In the digital world, I can actually guarantee that this like metaphorical envelope that I’m using to send you a message has never been opened before. Because math, [chuckles] and the analog world is like much more malleable in this way.
Imara: And then the A is for…
Anonymous: The last one, the A is for availability. We don’t tend to talk about this one as much because if you can get on Twitter and it loads for you, or you can open up your Signal messaging app and you can reach the other person, then that service is ‘available’. But the reason it’s part of security is because one thing an attacker might do to prevent you from having a secure system is degrade or destroy the availability of a service. So, for example, if I take down the Signal service, or if the Twitter website goes down, you can no longer use it, therefore it’s no longer available. And if what I want to do is force you to use an insecure system, I’ll attack the secure one, the availability of the secure ones to force you to downgrade to a less secure system.
Often times and this is particularly true in organizing, being able to communicate is more important than being able to communicate securely. In other words, if I have to send a message and I cannot do so in a secure way, but that message must be sent now, then I’m going to use an insecure method. For trans people in particular, there’s also this other additional thing which is, you’re not always necessarily the same identity in all the places. And so we have another layer where we’re really also talking about how to keep separate these different identities in addition to having like an individual interaction with a secure system or-or another person. You also might need to think about who you need to be, right? And how to not have that other person know more about who you might be somewhere else.
Imara: So you mentioned that there are so many different types of considerations for security. There’s more passive, we’ve spoken about kind of basic things that you can do and then more…
Anonymous: Active. Yeah.
Imara: What if you are a person who is worried about being targeted? Let’s say you were one of the people targeted by a thread on a place like Kiwi Farms, which was designed to spread information about you that someone had gleaned from the web. If you’re at the top of this kind of chain of possible targets for these type of digital breaches, what are the things that you recommend for people who are concerned and kind of want the maximum level of coverage?
Anonymous: Yeah, so this comes back to who are you hiding from and what exactly are you hiding, right? What needs you have here? As someone who definitely has gotten into my fair share of tussles with groups like Stormfront, [chuckles] I can tell you that it’s kind of a defense-in-depth strategy is…
Imara: A defense on what?
Anonymous: A defense-in-depth. You’re trying to create layers right of obfuscation or barriers that will slow down an attacker. The sad news is that really, really committed attackers. We’re talking like nation-states, right? We’re talking like extraordinarily resource groups. It’s very, very difficult to defend against them because you have to do so much. And your goal then as a defender is not so much to prevent but to delay. I’ll give you a good example. I was homeless for about 10 years. When I had a car, I needed to register that car. I knew that registering a car or putting addresses down would be a dangerous thing because if I was going to be in a place where people could have a piece of information about me, my location and therefore they could find me. So what I would do is I would register a car in a state where I was just leaving. And there’s a legal grace period to do this, right? Where you can then re-register after you move.
And on my situation, I was just continuously hopping. But the point is that what it meant is that when groups like Stormfront tried to dox me, what they found was information that was no longer useful. That’s an extreme example, but it’s the way to think about it, right? Security again, from a defenders point of view is never about prevention. It’s always about delay because from an attackers point of view, any information that you have or any vulnerability or exploit is only useful for a certain time window. And you have to use it within that time window or it’s no longer useful. So you’re delaying your attacker as much as possible to make it as expensive and difficult for them as possible. And so that’s what you want to do here. There are good ways to get multiple email addresses, multiple phone numbers, that will all relayed back to like your real phone number. But that way, you’re not giving out this contact information to everybody.
So mysudo.com for example is a good one. There’s Firefox relay, which gives you free email addresses. There’s also like Google Voice and stuff like this. They’re all free with the exception of mysudo for some features. This also gets us to that notion of I was talking about earlier, which is compartmentalization. You always want to use the same number for the same purpose. The same address for the same purpose. I’m, for example, going on a dating app, I might get a phone number just for that, right? If I’m then trying to do some sort of organizing, I might use a phone number just for that and never the two shall cross because if they cross, you have a correlation vulnerability, which is to say that it’s possible for someone to recognize that this number that was used in context A is also being used in context B, maybe there’s a connection between those two things. There’s also a group we work with called Anarco-Tech NYC which is useful, uh, to know about because they have a Wiki where a ton of this stuff is also listed.
Imara: So that’s kind of a lot of information. A lot of possibilities for people.
Anonymous: I know. [chuckles]
Imara: What we spoke about is if you’re going to be engaged kind of in the digital modern world, here are a variety of things that you want to have think about from a routine to the more advanced. But, you’ve decided in part to try to move as much of your life as possible offline, off the digital world. And so for people who want to do that, what is your advice, like what are the things that you undertake in to try to lessen your reliance on these platforms and systems?
Anonymous: The answer is primarily… I don’t have a lot of need to broadcast, right? I don’t use Instagram to like broadcast messages. I’m not posting on Facebook, I don’t have a Twitter. And instead, I’m literally using Signal in communicating there. Signal for me is everything from, “Hey, how are you today?” All the way through to like conversations that I probably shouldn’t talk to on [chuckles] the podcast. Um, because it just is the most secure and the easiest way to do this. If you’re asking about like my day-to-day life, I have a lot of different aliases because a lot of different things aren’t actually needing your government name. So for example, you do not necessarily need to show your neighbors what your name is. And if you’re getting mail that they might see, use a different name. Make up a name for receiving a package from UPS or Amazon. God forbid or whoever. And what that does is it prevents someone who’s just sort of like snooping around from getting that piece of information.
Imara: You’ve been in… doing this for a while. You’ve been doing this for no more than a decade. And I’m wondering when you look out on where things are now, do you feel better about the ability to secure, um, or do you feel more reticent?
Anonymous: In some ways individuals have become a lot more powerful. I actually feel way better about a lot of things for myself. And that’s not just because I’m getting better at this insecurity. You don’t like new things. You like old proven things. Only having time go by and things not going wrong will prove a security of something. So in a lot of ways, not only is the usability of these things getting better for like they people, and individuals’ ability to kind of combine these into a truly effective self-defense mechanism is getting a lot better.
The thing that I don’t feel great about is that a lot of these things are also becoming more obscure. There are these big companies like WhatsApp for example, that try to sort of like claim the same thing as these other tools but really aren’t. A really good way to think about the difference, for example, between something like WhatsApp and Signal which are both messaging applications, right? Is that something like WhatsApp… Well, for example, allow you to report a message as abusive which means, right, if you’re reporting a message as abusive on the WhatsApp platform, you’re sending a copy of this message to the Facebook police. And that means that they can read a message because they’re having to determine whether or not that message is “really” abusive. If they can read a message, then because computers, they can read all messages, right? The thing computers do is repetition and automation. And so in that simple thought experiment, we can see that WhatsApp and Signal are just not the same. And so, a lot of people are sort of being pushed towards these platforms that claim the same kind of security as the tools I like, but don’t actually have it and worse, don’t know how to evaluate that they don’t have it. That I see increasing. That’s really disappointing. But that’s also why Tech Learning Collective exists and why I guess conversations like this exists. [chukles]
Imara: Right. That’s a technical answer which I-I appreciate. But I also am wondering…
Anonymous: Oh, sure.
Imara: Yeah, I’m just also wondering like how you’re feeling about these platforms, you know? There’s a tremendous amount of discussion about the ways in which coming more organized with, for example, more targeted mass attacks against specific people. And a great many concerns about social media, what they’re doing with the information, how they’re using it, and just digital and cyber security in general. And I think these platforms are first developed, there was a tremendous amount of optimism about what they were going to lead to an usher. And-And I’m just curious when you are, if you’re looking at how things are developing even with the prospect of the metaverse versus the whole another thing we didn’t get into.
Anonymous: Gosh, yeah.
Imara: How are you feeling about the prospects of cybersecurity for trans people?
Anonymous: I’ve opted out in a lot of ways precisely because what I see is this sort of like gap widening. It is much, much, much easier today for a company to take advantage of you than it was and that’s because they’re learning how. And in ways that it was not possible 20 years ago for a tiny small committed group of people to have a massively outsized impact because we also, as individuals, weirdly, have exactly the same technical capability as massive companies. That’s the other, like best-kept secret in Tech is that you don’t need to be Google to have sort of like Google skills stuff to collect troves and troves of massive amounts of data on people across the internet. You can be an individual and do that. That’s incredibly powerful. It’s also incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, of course, but it is powerful.
So the gap of understanding that is widening between I think lay people and experts in this field. And, of course, experts in this field and I’m getting jobs at companies that then take advantage of people. So I don’t feel great about that. And my response to this has been, I need to do this lesson less precisely because this gap is getting worse for sure because the state of the arts evolving so, so quickly. Much quicker than I think a lot of people are used to, you know? There’s a Marshall Mcluhan concept, again, a philosopher who does media theory stuff and he says, for example, that you know, “We now treat the internet like it’s TV you can click on, and before that we treated radio like it was letters you could listen to.” And the point here is that culturally, it takes us a long time. It takes us like a generation to sort of catch up with understanding what a new media is, but we always analogize it to the old media.
And so if you’re ahead of that curve which you get to stay not only ahead of like other industries but you also stay ahead of what that belief about what’s possible is and that’s the dangerous thing. That’s when you take advantage of somebody when you know more about how things are working than they do. So all the things that people are worried about today, these were things that were possible in 1999, right? These are things that were pre-9/11 concerns for a lot of people in this field. And the fact that we’re just now seeing them show up on like news headlines, that shows you the delay that I’m talking about and that’s getting worse.
Imara: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to show us how we can try to, I guess catch up with the curve.
Imara: And for giving us the tools and the information to try to protect ourselves better, uh, and to take the power back from corporations and people who wish to do us harm. I really appreciate the time that you’ve taken and everything that you’re doing at the Tech Learning Collective.
Anonymous: Thank you, Imara. You was well.
Imara: Of course, of course. That was Anonymous.
Imara: A lead cybersecurity instructor at the Tech Learning Collective.
Thank you for joining me on the TransLash Podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end of the show for something extra. Special thanks first though to MW26 for giving us a drumroll, five star review on Apple podcast. MW26 says, “Much-needed reporting on the Trans Community.” “Imara is so smart and so funny.” Thank you. “And each guest is too.” “I learn something new every time I listen and I feel more connected to my community. Yay!”
MW26, thank you so much for your kind words. We’ve been getting a flood of one-star reviews lately, it’s because we were spot lit by Apple podcast and it attracted all these haters. So helping us drought out all that negative noise and those transphobic trolls by leaving us this five-star review is of great help.
The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash team includes Oliver- Ash Klein, and Aubrey Calloway. Our intern is Mirana Munson-Burke. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show and our sound engineer. Digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you. So if you want, go to translash.org and hit the donate button.
Where am I leaning forward to? I’m personally looking forward to going seeing my friends in Austin, Texas. Security experts would say that but I shouldn’t say that. But probably by the time most people hear this, I’ll already be out of Texas. Isn’t that weird that we have to start thinking like that. In any event, it’ll be my first time visiting them there. They moved three years ago. Four years ago, maybe. Goodness. And it’ll be my first time seeing them because, you know, the world stopped. So I am looking forward to just eating outside and hanging out with my friends that I haven’t seen in their new place and just restoring myself, uh, in that way, taking advantage of this opening that we seem to have with COVID. I personally, am skeptical. I don’t think it’s gonna last that long. I think we’re going to be talking about COVID again late in October or November, but that’s just me. I could be wrong and I so hope I’m wrong. So y’all go get your booster shots, you’re omicron booster shots.
But we’ll see how long it lasts. But while it lasts, I’m going to drive the truck through the door and have a good time. So that’s what I’m looking forward to. And I hope that you’re able to find connections large and small with people that you love and that you haven’t been able to see either because they’ve been away over the summer or you’ve been away over the summer or these past years and that it’s restorative for you because, you know, we could have a rough end-of-the-year y’all. So we just need to use these moments in time to pour into ourselves and each other. So that’s what I’m going to do.
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