Thoughts on Security Culture: 'Is the Cure Worse than the Illness?'

This-phone-is-tapped-original

An article by PB Floyd, from the Riseup.net zine 'Digital Security for Activists', on the balance between security culture, and "community building and a broad social movement".

by PB Floyd (licensed CC-BY-SA)

In discussing security culture, activists have to be
careful to keep our priorities clear in our minds. Our
first priority is action for social change. With that
as the priority, it is wise to consider how to reduce
risks to ourselves and that is where security cul-
ture comes in. But if we focus too much on security
culture, reducing risk can easily eclipse the primary
priority of taking action to promote social transfor-
mation.

I’ve noticed that a certain kind of paralyzing think-
ing has increased over the last few years as dis-
cussing security culture has become more popular.
People and groups get so tied up in making sure
their action is secure that they end up not doing
the action, or they only do it in a very tiny way with
a very tiny group of trusted friends. When security
culture makes us too paranoid to publicize any kind
of action, our activist priorities have been turned
backwards. When we focus too much on security
culture, we over-estimate and confuse risks.

For example, there are dramatically different risks
in having insecure discussions of an illegal action
like a road blockade, lock down, tree sit, or bill-
board alteration versus having one about arson. All
of these things may be illegal and monitored by the
police, but the penalty for arson can be 30 years
in prison, whereas the penalties for a lock down
are minimal. Sure, it is best that the police don’t
know that we’re going to have a lock down, but if
the security measures we adopt make it impossi-
ble to organize the action beyond a tiny circle of
trusted people, we may have missed the point. So-
cial change requires a lot more than any specific
action—it requires building community and a broad
social movement. This means moving beyond ac-
tivist cul-de-sacs, making our process open, accessi-
ble, and democratic, and welcoming lots of different
kinds of people to join in. Broad openness is directly
opposed to a lot of security culture guidelines.

What I’ve noticed is that security culture tactics
that might be very reasonable if one was organizing
a highly illegal arson have been popping up in the
context of much less risky actions. This weakens
our movement. We should not reserve direct action
for a tiny group of our trusted friends. The prac-
tice and experience of direct action is a life-changing
event for many people, and our movement needs
more places to share these transformative experi-
ences with new folks.

When I was introduced to radical direct action in
1984, I’m pretty sure I never heard a discussion of
security culture. It wasn’t that we did not realize
that the police might be monitoring us with the goal
of stopping our actions. Many activists I met then
were veterans of the 1960s—they were keenly aware
of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. But what I remember was
that the folks who were my mentors when I was a
teenage activist weren’t scared or paranoid. They
were very aware of the risks and they met the fear
with a huge reserve of courage. I remember being at
huge, open spokescouncil meetings and huge, open
action trainings. It was all very open even though
we were pretty sure the cops were watching. And
our actions were large and diverse as a result. My
first arrest was when I was 16 years old for sitting
in front of a train carrying nuclear weapons. Over
100 of us took that bust. The only way to organize
actions on that scale (it was part of an on-going cam-
paign of actions) was focusing on openness and not
on security.

Discussions of security culture are a more recent
trend in the scene and it makes sense in view of
9/11 and the green scare arrests of Jeffrey “Free”
Leurs, Daniel McGowen and others. But when we
discuss action, we have to keep in mind that few of
us will ever take an action like Free took.

I hope that many, even most, of us will have the
opportunity to participate in some form of direct ac-
tion, including illegal actions. Sometimes breaking
the law is a necessary part of social change.

Just today, I was faced with this kind of dilemma.
I’m involved with a radical community space and we
agreed to allow the local low-power pirate radio sta-
tion to put a transmitter on our roof. Last night, I
got the word that it was going up today. The col-
lective that runs the community space has to be an
open, non-secure group in order to welcome new-
comers and be a publicly accessible portal into the
activist scene. So there is a non-secure email list
for volunteers—it is very hard to really know who
is on that email list because there are new volun-
teers constantly signing up. Someone had to send
out an email message saying, “The antenna is going
up today. If the FCC or the police show up, don’t
let them in unless they have a warrant.” That some-
one was me—and I have to admit that I felt tense
hitting the send button because I knew that sending
the email connected me personally with the whole
situation. Even if I didn’t personally send the email,
I and many other people are publicly connected with
the space.

Is sending an email like this—or deciding to allow
a pirate antenna on your group’s roof... risky? Sure
it is—it could subject us to fines, police raids, even
possibly jail time. There is no way to take this action
in a manner consistent with security culture. The
FCC can locate the signal from the antenna and it
is sitting physically on our roof. We really have to
choose to accept the risk and do the action, or avoid
the risk and not do the action. So it is a matter
of considering the risks, balancing this against the
reward, and deciding between fear and fearlessness.

I want us to discuss the security culture, but part
of that discussion has to be about when we’ll go
ahead and do stuff even when there are clear risks
that can’t be mitigated or avoided. Hopefully, our
discussion of security culture will emphasize that if
it makes us too paranoid or careful to actually act,
then we’ve lost our way.

Note: The image of the phone booth with 'This Phone is Tapped' sticker was created by Ruben Bos (also licensed CC-BY-SA). See original:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbos/3343986573/sizes/o/in/photostream/

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