Last weekend developers, designers, and politically minded technologists converged in New York City for a Debug Politics hackathon aimed at addressing political issues and increasing civic engagement. “The New York City tech scene is hungry to roll up its sleeves and get to work,” said Avand Amiri, one of the hackathon organizers. “There's a real sense that we need to get involved in politics at the technical level.”
The weekend’s top prize went to Second Opinion, an app that allows users to determine the trustworthiness of their Facebook feeds and find alternative viewpoints. Other notable projects include snapgov, a “tinder for legislation” application that aims to increase political education; phoneocracy, a platform that matches people over the phone with voters on the other side of the aisle; and Herdz, which branded itself as “Waze, but for protests.”
This technology marks an important step forward in the fight against fake news, disenfranchisement, and polarization — the issues, in other words, that shaped our most recent election. As the final countdown to Trump’s inauguration begins, however, developers like Tantek Çelik are arguing that Silicon Valley should instead focus on privacy and data security. “We are facing a situation where the tools for surveillance are already in place,” Çelik told me. “Rather than developing more tech products, we need to first make our existing products safer, more private and more secure.”
Çelik is referencing a strategy called “defensive design” — the practice of designing technology to minimize future misuse. “Technologists must evaluate how their products could be abused for censorship, surveillance, subversion,” Çelik said.
“Many of us work at companies that collect a large amount of behavioral data,” Maciej Ceglowski, founder of Bay Area Tech Solidarity, agreed recently. “Consider how someone with full access to this data could use it against vulnerable people. What are the actual SQL queries they would run if they wanted to identify Muslims, or undocumented immigrants, or trans people?”
Maciej is not alone in voicing these concerns. Yesterday, over 50 tech employees gathered outside of Palantir’s headquarters in Palo Alto to demand that the company, co-founded by vocal Trump supporter Peter Thiel, take a stand against Trump’s “Muslim registry.” This is more than a hypothetical concern: border patrol agents have already begun questioning Muslim Americans about their political and religious beliefs and demanding access to their phones and social media accounts as they try to re-enter the country. “Given the severity of the situation at hand, we need everyone focused on making things safer for our most vulnerable populations,” Çelik added.
In an effort to do exactly that, Debug Politics has begun soliciting hackathon ideas from organizations like the New York Immigration Coalition and Planned Parenthood. “What NYIC asked for—and this makes a lot of sense—is a deportation safety kit of sorts, a digital pin to hold a user’s passport and immigration information,” Jay Cheng, a campaign manager and member of Debug Politics, told me. “The idea is that if a deportation or raid is about to take place, the user can press a button and the entire packet will be sent to a family member or trusted friend, along with information about legal rights and instructions on how to take care of their children.”
Such ideas are a bridge between Çelik’s argument for defensive design and Debug Politics’ call for new tech solutions. As we watch the transition of power from an administration that failed to stand up for personal privacy and data security to one that is sure to fight against it, Silicon Valley is faced with a choice: follow the trend of digital complacency, or take a hard look at our contributions to the increasing vulnerability of personal data—and shore up our defenses in preparation for what is to come.