Cryptoparty Ann Arbor: A Case Study in Grassroots Activism
Grassroots activism, in its many forms, allows a community to mobilize around a shared set of ideals and creates an environment whereby participants can share information and resources to help facilitate the advancement of their common aims.
The Electronic Frontier Alliance (EFA) is a grassroots network of community and campus organizations, unified by a commitment to upholding the principles of the EFA: privacy, free expression, access to knowledge, creativity, and security. An active member of the EFA, Cryptoparty Ann Arbor, connects with their community by hosting digital security workshops with an emphasis on educating people about privacy issues in the digital age.
We spoke with Mike and John—two of the groups core organizers— to discuss how Cryptoparty Ann Arbor came to be, their experiences with reaching a wider audience in their community and the future of the group.
How and when did Cryptoparty Ann Arbor get started?
Mike: I started Cryptoparty Ann Arbor a few years ago because I was concerned about the security and privacy of the technology we use, and problems like dragnet surveillance and surveillance capitalism. But it's not enough to just learn about and use different tools and alternatives; it's a whole social project of changing how people use technology. So, I started holding monthly workshops at the local hackerspace to have a place for people to learn more about these issues, as well as how to use different tools to better defend themselves from surveillance. As more people got involved, things grew into a bit more of a collective, and now we have multiple people willing to help host workshops, and have developed good connections with many of the people who've attended our trainings.
What are the biggest challenges when catering to participants that have a varied level or knowledge around cyber security?
John: One of the biggest challenges when catering to participants is making sure we align our recommendations with their capabilities and expectations. We have to be willing to meet people where they are, and think of ways to get them to where they would like to be, not just where we want them as educators so we can check off some kind of list. Sometimes it means encouraging faster, easier solutions rather than the "most secure." Helping people develop their Security Plan (what some refer to as a Threat Model, or Risk Assessment) can be difficult, but makes it much easier to make the best possible recommendations.
What do you find to be the core needs of your community? Do they differ from your initial expectations?
John: The core needs for our community are: Basic Digital Security Privacy, Education, and Awareness. It aligns well with the intent of the Cryptoparty movement: a decentralized way to pass on knowledge about protecting yourself in the digital space, including but not limited to: encrypted communication, preventing being tracked while browsing the web, and general security advice regarding computers and smartphones.
Ann Arbor public library is the venue for many of your events. How did that relationship begin?
John: The Ann Arbor District Library relationship began when one of our fellow organizers (Dave) reached out to contacts there and suggested we host some events. Initially we started with the usual cryptoparty workshops, such as security trainings. We’ve added other types of events since then, for example, Dave organized a wonderful screening and panel discussion of the movie, "The Internet's Own Boy’, in honor of Aaron Swartz Day.
How has using a space like a public library improved the accessibility of your events?
John: The Ann Arbor District Library allows us to reach so many people who would otherwise be unaware of our group or events. We have noticed much higher attendance and participation. They have been extremely helpful and supportive of our events and workshops to help us with these events. The advertising and promotion they do is extremely effective at getting people that you may not usually think to target within the Ann Arbor local population. Because the Library is such an accessible place with a diverse user base it helps us reach a cross section of the population, regular attendees include folks from low income households, students, disabled people and the elderly. People and places that the Library already has a great reach and respected presence. It can be easy for Cryptoparty to become a techie echo-chamber. We want to reach as many people as possible, especially those who do not have the knowledge or do not know how to access it.
What do you envisage for the future of Cryptoparty Ann Arbor?
John: The future of the group will most likely be continuing workshops and training, both virtual and physical, and expanding to become more involved in policy and advocacy, such as the About Face campaign to ban facial recognition. COVID-19 may have slowed us down on some of this work, but it will NOT stop us!
Our thanks to Cryptopary Ann Arbor. To find an Electronic Frontier Alliacne affiliated group near you, visit eff.org/fight. If you already part of grassroots or community group in your area please consider joining the Alliance.