But I Have Nothing to Hide: Prism Break-Up Workshop | MIT Center for Civic Media

But I Have Nothing to Hide: Prism Break-Up Workshop

Contributors: Seeta Gangadharan (OTI), Becky Hurwitz, and Emi Kane (AMP, ICU).

On Oct 5, Eyebeam, an art and technology institute in New York held an event called Prism Break-Up. Spanning 3 days, Prism Break-Up brought together privacy and security advocates/researchers, techies, and artists to learn about and discuss issues of surveillance, focusing mostly on online and digital surveillance in the United States.

The three of us had formed a loose working group after coordinating a series of sessions about surveillance and social justice at the Allied Media Conference, and have since conducted workshops and events around the country, focusing on these issues. In part, our work together is meant to help bridge the gaps between policy, technology, and social movement spaces, all of which are involved in their own, often siloed conversations about surveillance. We also hope to locate recent conversations about NSA surveillance in the broader context of social movement history, focusing on the histories and experiences of poor people and communities of color.

At Eyebeam, we presented a work-in-progress session we're calling "But I have nothing to hide". It grew out of a discussion about what has become a common reaction to knowledge of massive government spying.
Seeta began the day with a discussion about surveillance and social justice and led into our workshop.  Follow this link to read the content of Seeta's discussion.  With the context set by Seeta, considering surveillance as a tool used disproportionately against certain groups of people -- low income, undocumented, people of color, we led into the exercise, a popular-education style workshop in which the audience engaged as active participants in activities designed to create conversation around political framing of individuals, publicly available data, and to present a challenge that, when everything is recorded and searchable, and any activity can be framed as dangerous, what we do publicly and privately without concern might be used against us.
Workshop overview
It's just your private email, the messages you send with friends and acquaintances. How could these things be a threat? We have seen in recent and past moments, how data collected through mass spying and surveillance programs can be used to characterize individuals as threats and criminals, often based on political motives and without much context.

A common to response to concerns being raised about programs like PRISM is, "Surveillance is helping us to identify criminals and people who threaten the public. There are people out there who want to hurt us. I have nothing to hide. Why should I care?"

In this workshop, we will provide documents using information widely available through public records and through PRISM or other surveillance and data collection. Participants will break out into two groups. The first group will take on the role of NSA agents, and will be instructed to build a criminal case against the individual. The second group will take on the role of journalists, and will use the same documents to construct a narrative about the person's life and identity.

Anyone who is interested in exploring the ways that identity and criminal identity are constructed via mass surveillance. Anyone interested in exploring the ways in which seemingly benign interactions and communication can be mis-used to target people through surveillance.


  • This will engage people in a fun and interactive collaborative exercise that will hopefully help participants re-frame thinking about criminality and the logics that normalize the use of initiatives like PRISM and other state surveillance programs.
  • We hope to test this workshop as a way of engaging people in a conversation of surveillance as a political issue.

Facilitation Guide
Preparation: Facilitators create a set of documents with telephone records (calls and text message recipients and originators; travel and banking information; web searches; social media analytics).  You can create this based on your own records.  You can base these documents on your own records -- consider anonymizing the phone numbers and other identifiable information about the people you are communicating with.

You can also use publicly available tools to search for data about yourselves and add these findings to the documents that you share in the workshop.  Try the following services:

  • Wolfram Alpha Facebook analysis - Authorize Wolfram Alpha and it will run a set of analytics on your Facebook data and give you the results in a graphically pleasing way, showing you things like common words in your posts, most common commenters on your page, stats about where you and your friends are, how old you are, how often you interact.
  • Arrest Records: there are many services on the net, a quick search for "arrest records" yielded http://www.dirtsearch.org/
  • Where you've lived: Again, there are many services to look for addresses, a search for "address look up" yielded http://www.peoplesmart.com/

60 minutes total

(5 min) for arrival and settling in
(5 min) Intro and overview

  • Introduce the history of state surveillance used for political targets
  • Create 2 groups: Have people count off by 2 and break into 2 groups

(30 min) Prompts for participants
Group 1: You are our newest agent. We're pleased that you have joined the NSA. As your first assignment, you will help us to construct a case against Subject A using these documents. Your objective is to use available information to ensure that this person is properly characterized and revealed as an obvious threat to the nation.

Group 2: You are a seasoned journalist. You have been given a stack of documents made available to you through a leak and public records. The state is telling one story about Subject A, it is your job to tell an alternate version of this person's character. Who is this person? What is their daily life like, what was their past until now like, what do they wish for their future?

Instructions for participants:
We're sharing documents with you taken from publicly available data sources and from accounts that would be available to intelligence agents like your social media data, telephone and web use, travel history. You have 30 minutes to create your stories.

Each group, use a hackpad to write and appoint a notetaker:

As the groups work, prompt periodically with questions: What are the patterns? How do you identify them? What helps you determine what is suspicious? What is normal? What would you do given more time to work with the data?

Prompt for discussion: Notice that the data you had access to implicates the subject's entire network, so through your behavior, you are making a decision not just for yourself, but for your entire community of friends, family, and contacts families/communities/networks/social movements online, too about who has access to their data.

(10min) Report Backs and Documentation
Each group reads their story and we share reflections on the process.
Notes from our Prism Break-Up Reportbacks:
Journalists: group 1
We have come to these conclusions. This person is probably female, maybe works in web development for advertising companies, interested in technology and she's into activism, specifically in technology, went to an anti-military and thing for undocumented migrants. Probably lives in SF, a lot of the travel and family ties in Philly. The phone is a NYC area code. She tweets a lot and has a lot of short phone calls.It would be helpful to have the person's name or twitter handle.

NSA Agents: group 2
The person has a means to funding for travel. We think they are a journalist or a civil rights lawyer. They are clearly involved in taking part in various forms of activism -- encironmental, anti military, or things like the occupy movement. If you google those various towns, that might be connected to Occupy. The fact that they have the means to travel means they are of a particular group, probably based out of SF, used to living out of a suitcase and off of a mobile device. There are a lot of texts.We agree -- it would be helpful to have the twitter account or if we had proper phone numbers.

(10min) Tweetout
We will then briefly discuss how this exercise changed the way we might respond to those who say "But I have nothing to hide!" as a way to justify surveillance and spying by the state. Save these as tweet-length statements #nothingtohide #prismbreak for facilitators and participants to tweet into the shared hackpad

Next Steps
We will continue to modify this workshop for different spaces and settings. We will continue to develop the documents that we share with participants so that both groups feel they have enough information to participate. With more time, we might have participants search for publicly available information on themselves or perhaps ask one of the participants in the room or facilitators of the workshop to volunteer as the Subject. This would be a good way for people to get experience in finding information about themselves and in sharing tools and methods.

In the future, we might create more groups, prompting some groups as potential employers, house managers/landlords, and asking them to ask questions about the Subject and find answers in the data we shared or using online tools.

With more time, or possibly in a more conversation-focused workshop, we would give more examples of data profiling, possibly from the subprime mortgage crisis.