Tag Archives: security in the field

The Privacy Paradox: IRBs in an Era of NSA Mass Surveillance

[This invited post was written by Daniel O’Maley, who recently graduated with a PhD in cultural anthropology from Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on the global Internet freedom movement and the link between digital technology and new forms of democratic participation. You can read more about him and his research here]

Increasingly, our lives are mediated by the Internet and other digital technologies. For anthropologists like myself, this presents new opportunities for research, but the digitization, exchange, and storage of personal data also generate new privacy concerns for our participants. During my research on Brazilian Internet freedom activists, I learned about both the potentials of the Internet, as well as the way that digital technology can, and is, being abused to violate civil liberties. What I call the “privacy paradox,” refers to the situation in which the U.S. government at once defends research participants’ privacy through Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) while it simultaneously violates their privacy on a massive, global scale through mass surveillance national security apparatus.

The privacy paradox become apparent to me in July 2013, just a month after the Snowden leaks that exposed NSA mass surveillance, when I sat down to interview a high-level official of a Brazilian IT firm. Before the interview, I detailed the measures I was taking to ensure that his personal data would be protected and I explained that this was required by Vanderbilt’s IRB per U.S. law. Upon hearing this, the IT official looked at me incredulously. Over the previous two months the front pages of newspapers had been plastered with articles detailing U.S. government surveillance projects with codenames like PRISM, XKeyscore, and Stellar Wind that used the global telecommunications infrastructure to collect personal data on people around the world. My interviewee was well-versed in issues of privacy in the digital age, so to hear me state that the U.S. government was concerned with his privacy was laughable.

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Encrypting Ethnography: Digital Security for Researchers

(This invited post comes to us from Jonatan Kurzwelly. Jonatan is a a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of St. Andrews. You can email him at kurzwelly@mailbox.org . his PGP fingerprint is: 1B4B 89B4 DD31 B05E 949A E181 B51C CA99 2FD6 6382 -Rex)

Imagine a situation in which everything you do on your computer, tablet or telephone is easily available to local authorities, criminal organizations, corporations or even your neighbors or their teenage children. Imagine that your electronic diary is public and anyone can read everything you have written about the people you work with. Every piece of secret, confidential information you have been entrusted with is being read. It doesn’t matter if you use nicknames and codewords – someone who knows the context of your fieldsite will figure it out. With the use of special software, all your text, photographs, videos and sound recordings can be quickly and automatically analyzed, regardless of the language you write in. Moreover, imagine that all of your communications with your colleagues, sponsoring institutions or supervisors are also publicly available. This includes field reports, emails, video conversations, instant messaging, phone calls.

These are not fantasies but real threats if you are not taking additional measures to protect your data and are using a computer! The aim of this post is to introduce the problem of digital threats for sociocultural anthropologists and their informants. My intention is to bring this issue into public debate within the discipline and suggest introduction of appropriate security training into research preparation. I then describe some free-of-charge methods and tools that increase protection from Internet surveillance and data theft. I focus on the need to protect researchers’ personal computers, as well as the benefits of increasing the digital protection, privacy and anonymity of their informants. Continue reading

Ethnographic Field Data 2: When Not-Sharing is Caring

In my last post, I recommended that we consider archiving and sharing records from our fieldwork. Yet sharing both raw notes and publications can present challenges, as Rex recently covered with the controversy over Alice Goffman’s ‘anonymous’ but easily traced research in Philadelphia, published after she destroyed her fieldnotes.

Kristin Ghodsee similarly writes of the difficulties she encountered as she researched post-Socialist Muslims in Bulgaria—research that caught the interest of both local and American officials. After being detained and interrogated by Bulgarian officials, she decided to drop almost all of the ethnography from her forthcoming work. She describes her encounter with the state in this way:

He then asked me: “Are you responsible for this?”
“Excuse me?” I said, not quite understanding his implication.
“Is your purpose in Bulgaria to encourage these girls to assert their human rights?”
“No,” I stammered, “I’ve been doing this research since 2004, long before this summer.”
“But you know the girls?”
“Some of them.”
“And the people who are teaching them?”
“They are all the subject of my ongoing research. An academic research project.”
“Good,” he said. He nodded and jotted something down on his clipboard. He finally asked me if I had any questions for him.
“Is this interview a normal procedure for Americans applying for long-term residency?”
“No,” he said, matter-of-factly, “It is only for you.”
“Why me?”
“Your topic is interesting to us.” (Ghodsee 2011, p. 180).

As Ghodsee goes on to suggest, sharing the results of our research in any form, published or unpublished, can attract unwanted attention and Continue reading