Anthropology Under the NSA’s Eyes

We now know that living abroad or corresponding with someone outside the US makes you fair game for government surveillance. Last year I wrote about the difficulties faced by anthropologists working in places like China, where there can be no expectation of privacy. We now know (as many long suspected) that nowhere is safe. What does this mean for anthropologists?

High levels of confidentiality may not be important for all types of anthropological fieldwork, but it can be hard to anticipate what statements might get our collaborators in trouble and we have a responsibility to protect their privacy to the best of our ability. As more and more of us are storing data in the cloud and more and more of our collaborators are communicating with us via email and on Facebook, we should be conscious of the fact that we cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything stored online. Even if we are careful to anonymize our notes, it would often be a trivial matter for someone to identify our informants by piecing together metadata. And it is not just documents and messages we need to be concerned about – voice calls are not safe either. We know that Skype calls in China are monitored, and I’m not sure whether we can trust government assurances that only “metadata” is being recorded for calls made by US citizens. (Even if we can, how sure can you be that the calls are safe from monitoring at the other end?)

Does that mean that we should go back to keeping everything in paper notebooks? Storing data only on our local hard drives? Only speaking to people in person? Perhaps, especially if you conduct interviews with people whose words or behavior could get them in trouble with the state. For the rest of us, however, I think we have to weigh the risks against the convenience of using these tools. Security technology can help reduce the risk of snooping and Anthropologists should learn about encryption tools, but there is a limit to how much we can fight snooping with technology alone. We have a responsibility to take action to minimize risk by informing out collaborators of the very real limits we face in trying to protect their privacy. Even more importantly, we should take action and let the government know that NSA snooping hurts academic research. Ideally, I’d like to see an official statement from the AAA. Privacy isn’t just about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting the people we work with as well.

4 thoughts on “Anthropology Under the NSA’s Eyes

  1. Hi! Very interesting article, indeed.

    I think that, regardless of the medium, there is always an inherent risk associated with anthropological documentation for both parties. There is no perfect storage media or security protocol, but strives are made daily to improve the systems we have by brave digital anthropologists. The backlash in our post-PRISM/NSA society is on digital methods, however, not analog; methods which are more than just “a convenience” to some of us but the primary means of our research.

    I will agree that an ethically proactive dialog needs to begin between anthropologists first on the adoption and use of technology rather than reactionary responses to technological abuses, which hurt long-term academic progress. Only time and more research will tell if non-locally stored information (the cloud) is more vulnerable than locally-stored (in a notebook), but only one of those will last in perpetuity.

    I will say that, as a researcher, we are at a very interesting juncture.

  2. I think that basic confidentiality obligations require overseas fieldworkers to keep their data offline and encrypted. A locked drawer is your “DropBox.” Neither hard-drive space nor easy encrypting methods are difficult to come by (the challenging part of encryption is for messages sent over the internet). Especially for those of us researching political topics, basically any good advice for journalists applies to us:

  3. p.s. There’s a greater logistical challenge in responding to this invasion of privacy. I would recommend thinking it through before you transport your data through customs. This is also something that we can hope to have professional associations denouncing, and ideally providing legal support when we as researchers don’t turn over our passwords.

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