Let's start a wide debate around how to defend our privacy against emergency powers

TL;DR:

  • I have started to interview academics, experts and activists to understand the surveillance and loss of civil rights that are coming with the current pandemic.
  • You can ask questions about each interview and I’ll ask them to the guests.
  • The goal is to start a conversation. Once we have something solid out of this conversation I’ll do a (live-streaming) roundtable with some guests where you can ask questions right away.
  • In short: let’s all build a proper discussion on how to avoid a future dystopia and preserve our privacy and other rights while we can.

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About a month ago I started to work on my first feature documentary. It was going to be about data colonialism and the rise of data dictatorships.

I reached out to experts and scheduled some interviews. I bought new gear to increase the quality of the film. Prepared all these interviews from top to bottom. And I had started filming some ideas.

But then the lockdown happened. It was time to cancel the interviews.

Everything was on hold.

But then everything clicked… This isn’t the story I thought I was making.

One just has to see how emergency powers are currently unfolding around the world to know that this crisis will be what will open the doors to a regime of surveillance we didn’t see coming.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just stop me from running my interviews. It changed the entire approach of this film.

A lot is happening in the shadows right now. And we need to have some serious conversations. Not after the pandemic is over. But during the pandemic, when our civil rights and privacy are most vulnerable.

The truth is that after 9/11 we saw one of the most sophisticated surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen.

And I believe the surveillance that will come with this pandemic will be even bigger. This will be under-the-skin surveillance.

So we need to start conversations to figure this beast out and find a way forward.

In short: I’m officially working on this new film. There’s no release date yet. There’s no title either. And there’s no clear concept yet.

So here’s what I’m doing:

I’m interviewing experts, activists and whoever I can, in order to put the pieces together and understand the scope of this crisis.

Then, once we have clarity and evidence, I’ll create this feature film with all the documentation from this journey.

The film will be something that wraps things up and spreads the knowledge we obtain through this journey. But what’s important right now is to start having a public debate around these issues. The film is just secondary. It’s a pure documentation process. What matters here is the journey of figuring out where this is going and deciding how to shape the narrative.

Here’s the deal: after the interviews, I’ll run some Q&As here so you can ask questions to the person I interview.

Then after a couple of times doing this, I’ll organize a roundtable (maybe I can livestream it) to answer the most important questions we come up in this thread.

I wanna take you on a journey. And then spread to the world what we’ve achieved during the following months—or years who knows. We’re going to start monitoring the situation and putting this puzzle together.

I have already run some interviews. Two are published and two more are coming. (I’ll try to release at least one per week.)

Here you can find two related interviews about data colonialism with the co-authors of The Costs of Connection.

Nick Couldry: a Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at The London School of Economics. Links:

Ulises Mejias: an Associate Professor in the Communication Studies department at SUNY Oswego in New York. Links:

So here’s how this is going to work:

First, watch the interviews.

Second, share your questions in this thread.

Third, I’ll do a Q&A again with Nick & Ulises answering your questions.

I’m just trying to do my bit as best as I can. I hope you find this useful. And if you do, please let’s start this conversation.

Please, join the conversation if you can.

You can suggest guests, topics or whatever you think is useful here.

Feel free to reach out through DM or email with suggestions.

PS. there’s a reddit discussion as well: https://www.reddit.com/r/privacy/comments/g8bnqy/lets_start_a_wide_debate_around_how_to_defend_our/

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There are definite reasons to be concerned, as the situation does create scenarios for easy power grabs. But there’s so much subjectivity too, however. One person’s definition of personal freedom is another person’s obligation to bear the risk of someone sneezing over everyone in public. This is not entirely a black or white issue.

I worry at this stage we need more social cohesiveness, not less. And the timing is all wrong when nations are under rational calls for a state of emergency. Maybe in a year will be better to discuss, because too much is in flux and unknown right now to spend much time getting blue in the face over shifting sands in the middle of a global crisis.

You could argue that the time to prevent abuses is before and not after the horse has left the stable. But context matters a lot, and it’s not like states can’t change. I think back to when I attended World Cup 2010 where South Africa had to suspend its constitution around the stadiums … because it was the only way they could allow for security to check bags of attendees before entering the stadium while the newish South African constitution prevented that as an abuse of illegal searches and seizures as established under Apartheid.

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Thanks for your answer @greg

This is a really important point. That’s why I’m doing this. The truth is that we need a wide social debate around this. And we need to make sure we’re being as objective as possible.

I have to disagree here. We know by experience that crises have been widely used in the past to violate human rights. And waiting for the last minute it’s always too late. There are certain conversations that we won’t be able to have after the pandemic. Once the surveillance gets in place, it won’t be removed. Because there might be “another future pandemic–and we need to be ready for it”.

BTW, there’s a reddit discussion as well: https://www.reddit.com/r/privacy/comments/g8bnqy/lets_start_a_wide_debate_around_how_to_defend_our/

In these times The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is put into full motion, and a lot of bad things happening off the radar right now. Objectivity - lotsa good investigative journalism - is indeed direly needed. This can very well be crowdsourced too, to a certain extent.

And in fact that is happening all around the world, in various settings and groups. And we hear about this if we decide to listen. But raising the alarm is not enough to activate people… the dangers need to be made more tangible. Two things you can consider are:

  • Collect a list of links to other initiatives that are dealing with this same issue
  • Collect a list of shadowy stuff that is going on behind our backs, link to the best resource that explains it, provide a TL;DR and sort the entries by country / countries involved.

With regards to timing I think both you and @greg are right. The Red Cross in warzones like Syria help wherever they can, and record war crimes that occur. These are taken to court at first opportunity, when the chances are highest that justice ensues (ideally). So the answer imho is ASAP action, but well timed, and thorough recording / investigation on what is happening takes precedence.

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Thanks Arnold for your reply.

I think I can do something like this in Data Rebels. I’ll get back to you if/when I do this.

This is probably right. Easier said than done, though. But it’s precisely what’s needed now.

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A couple of days ago I did one of my favorites interviews. It was with George Lawson, a Professor of International Relations at ANU & LSE, and author of Anatomies of Revolution.

What I’m going to do in this post is (1) Give you the links and a quick introduction to the conversation—and why this is a critical conversation. And (2) I’ve figured that, since I’m going to document my journey here, I think it’s a good idea to share what I’m intending to do. That way I can get early feedback from you and change course if necessary.

Talking revolutions with George Lawson:

Here’s a short clip from the interview that I think it shows what this conversation is about:

When I shared previous interviews on Reddit someone asked: “Can we actually win?” And I thought that that was a great question to ask an expert on revolutions. Because, let’s be honest: I’m a big believer in using tools with better privacy and not playing the “surveillance capitalists’ game”. But in order to win this—in order to have a successful outcome, we need more than just switching to tools with better privacy. I believe this situation requires some sort of revolution.

So the conversation with George is a search for what makes revolutions work, and how we can tackle this new breed of global revolution.

Of course, I didn’t get a specific answer. The problem is too complex for a simple answer—if it were easy we wouldn’t be doing this. However, George shared with me some great thoughts and a thread I can pull to start figuring out things.

“The big question of revolutionary strategies today is: What happens then if you win? Because what vanguard elite were very good at, is deciding ‘well the point of the revolution is to win so I’ll have all sorts of alliances’. And then in day one that’s what the revolutionary project is. When you have these huge decentered movements without leaders the question then becomes: Okay, well what happens if you win there?”

—George Lawson, author of Anatomies of Revolution

This conversation was just the start, but I have the feeling this interview has been the right thread to pull in upcoming interviews. And I’d love to do a roundtable about this with George and other experts (feel free to suggest more names)

The interview:

Video: Invidious or Youtube

Podcast: Links to Spotify, Apple, and many more platforms here: borjamoya.com/podcast

The process is the same. Please, watch the interview and ask your questions here. Or email them to me at hello(at)borjamoya(dot)com.

Some random thoughts I’ve had after the interview:

One of the things I came up with during my conversation with George is that you can study revolution a from where it starts.

Before this conversation I was considering going to Asia to start a documentary. But now the direction has become much more clear: We need to study how Hong Kong is tackling their problems and how they’re moving their revolution forward.

The main problem I have with documentaries, and media per se, is that what they mostly do is to cover “the problem”. But not only that: they cover specific problems. So with China, we know about social credit systems, that’s why there are hundreds of articles written about it. With Hong Kong? We know about their protests, that’s why there are hundreds of videos and articles written about it. However, I find that there are two missing ingredients I don’t see out there—or at least are not well covered, or they don’t have the right coverage/exposure.

One is the lack of perspective: I don’t see that the problem is well covered anywhere.

The second one is the lack of solutions: We always know what happens afterwards. But what if we decide to try to predict the future? As the cliché goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

So I think we need to clearly study the problem. We should not underestimate the problem. We should clearly state it: Here is it, the problem. And it shouldn’t be focused on the latest news or what’s trendy now. And after all, it is our job to force the attention towards the issues that need it.

Once we state the problem, we should seek for solutions. Let’s not fool ourselves, this is much bigger than we think it is. And it’s going to be really difficult to pull something off. But that’s precisely why we need to carefully study revolutions. And see how we can create a successful one. And here’s the thing: we’re living in very turbulent times. I believe during the following years/decades we will see a new breed of revolutions. But as George Lawson states in his book, revolutions can be positive or negative. That’s why we need to get to work and find out how we can come up with positive outcomes.

It is our duty as citizens/people fighting for our rights.

I don’t know what you guys think, but I’ve got a plan. And it’s not too complicated. I’m going to go to the places where revolution is happening. And study them early on, not afterwards. And try to see the successful patterns that will make a successful revolution. I will create highly cinematic work to explore this. Because I believe we need to use the best tools that we can to spread the message. I love books, but sometimes what we need are visuals. And tell compelling stories that move people.

What do you think? Is this what’s most important right now? What do you think is the hard part of this entire thing? (I’m not referring to the film, I’m referring to identifying the problem and clearly stating a solution—stating a way forward)


Please comment down below questions, thoughts, whatever. And of course, feel free to reach out to me via Reddit or email at hello(at)borjamoya(dot)com

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Hi Borja,

I’ve read the first two parts of the your book, the first part in particular was so good I couldn’t put it down. I watched all of the excellent George Lawson interview as well and loved it.

I took part in the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, just in a basic low level support role which gave me an insider look and also the ability to interview people, spy a bit in person, study tactics and document things normally unseen or ignored. I mean nobody I know even wants to think about it, even though there was “victory” it’s always bittersweet and the process is horrifying. It is nothing to aspire towards, in fact it only happened in that country because Russia tricked the then President into doing idiotic things where the natural response was revolution. Nobody would want such a thing. The results of revolutions never meet the protestor demands except superficially. In the Ukraine case for example it just led to a normal election where the same old major opposition parties took power and then quietly got rid of the revolutionaries who put them in power and ignored almost all of their democratic ideals, and used the media for the bad kind of manipulation of the public.

George Lawson seems spot on. You need those 3 elements he mentioned to align in order for any Revolution to work, but in the case of Data Dictatorships seems that won’t be the case. The question isn’t “how to do it?”, the questions should be first “should it be done?” and then potentially “can it be done?”

I think George was correct to say that in democracies there are other ways. Politics. George mentioned something like that the current left movements aren’t offering solutions, and successful movements would need to find those answers that people can rally behind. It seems to me that’s where we are now. Looking for solutions that can be marketed to the mass public as the backbone of reformed major parties or some new party.

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Hi Alex,

Thank you for your comment. I’m really glad you liked the book and the interview.

You’re absolutely right, and I’d love to know more about your experience during the Ukrainian Revolution.

This is precisely the core issue. And that’s what we need to figure out with these conversations/debates.

This could be a potential solution. However, I believe we’re seeing a new breed of revolution. (And let’s remember that that revolution can be positive or negative. So far it is a revolution led by Data Dictatorships.) The challenge here is how can you make a global revolution?

In a way, that removes the political element of it. And by that I mean that if you go down the politics road, you’re likely to change things at a national level. And if you’re lucky, you might involve some other countries too.

The big challenge we’re facing is that we’re in a new breed of a global revolution. And in order to find some answers, I believe we need to get rid off some constraints in our way of thinking.

Along with the great questions you’ve asked (“should it be done?” & “can it be done?”), another great question to ask is: How should a revolution look like?

I don’t have any answers yet. And this is going to be really hard to pull off. But hey, we’re getting closer!

By the way, do you guys have any suggestion on who I should interview next? Or someone who could be great for a roundtable with George?

It might be also useful to question whether things in your philosophy should be so clear cut. For example, is data alone enough to take geopolitical control of the entire world? Will there be enough people in free societies that will say “no”?

One of the main things I learned from participating in the Revolution is that what comes after is more important that the Revolution itself. The problem is almost everybody is focused on getting rid of a big problem and on fighting the Revolution. But then almost everybody forgets to find a solution. And as soon as the Revolution is finished, almost everyone goes back home and stops paying much attention anymore to what’s happening afterwards.

What happens after the Revolution is that nobody bothered creating a comprehensive solution or the team needed to put it in action, because that takes time and is slow. Yet as revolution is rapid and chaotic, the leaders put in place by a revolution pretend to be with the revolution but actually go back to the previous state in most aspects, manipulate the media to cover for their lack of revolution-mandated reforms, and quietly suppress and attack the actual revolutionaries that put them in power. Without an alternate system, the old system keeps running perhaps only slightly subdued but effectively almost the same.

I feel the Revolution we need is possible, but it should be a technological revolution where people switch to safer, more humane and private technology. That’s an upgrade that any person, organisation or government would choose for themselves. Maybe that’s impossible if the real enemy is capitalism and only the richest profit-seeking companies continue to be the only ones offering us often free world-beating technology that only they can afford to build. This new technological revolution would require either billionaire donors to pay for all of humanity’s software and internet services, or would have to charge users. The question is that without a profit motive, who is motivated to fund and build such technologies?

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Thanks for your great answer, @Free

Nothing can be so clear cut. And I wish I’m wrong with this.

One of the things I discuss in my book Data Dictatorships is that when we talk about data, we should really be talking about biometric data.

And once you know how people work under the skin and you’re able to push the right emotional buttons… Will that mean we’ll live in a free society?

What does freedom mean when your reality is so exposed you’re no longer in control of your own thoughts?

I know that it seems I’m saying this is all gloom and doom. But that’s because we shouldn’t take these problems lightly.

Is this a problem that can be solved by just securing data? Probably not. There are some many more variables that take part in this.

This is an extremely important point. Another point George Lawson remarked in his interview. That’s why we all have to figure out how to solve this problem. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible.

That’s why we need a new system. Let’s remember that if a system doesn’t work for us we shouldn’t adapt to it to the extreme of losing our rights and freedoms. There’s a possibility of a new system.

I recommend you to listen to this interview I did about data colonialism with Nick Could, a Professor at LSE and co-author of The Costs of Connection: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rk-yC9DF3mE

Thanks, I listened to the Nick Couldry interview and it was excellent as always. He is truly knowledable and I agree completely with him! He seems to hit all of the important points regarding privacy and what the present and future holds. Very well said and thank you professor.

“The overall trend of data colonialism which literally says the whole world of human experience is there for the taking by both capital and governments for their uses. The implications of that is that the difference between the so-called China and the so-called East and the so-called West will become increasingly minimal because both of them will be taking advantage of the resources of data colonialism. One exclusively most of the time for private corporations. The other for a complex alliance of corporations and governments which is what you have in China and some degree in Korea and so on. The beneficiary will be different but the system of rule will become increasingly convergent and so it will be harder and harder to tell the difference between democracies, so-called democracies and non-democracies. And we think this is the wider lesson of data colonialism. That unless, if you like, we redefine our values in the so-called-West, the value of freedom, and really rethink it, and reinforce it for this new situation it will be lost and it will suddenly, it will disappear in the mix of history until we won’t be able to recover the memory of it. I think we have ten fifteen years to win this battle, maybe 10 years is optimistic.”
Nick Couldry
The BM Show #002 // Colonized by Data, a conversation with Nick Couldry

Let me throw in a strong note here that you and Nick both spend almost all of the time talking about the problem, and not about solutions. As our discussion on revolutions showed, successful revolutions need to have the solution in place and the team and power to carry it through, and that’s the place where “successful” revolutions fail.

I would also say that the left and center-left’s failure in modern politics especially in the US is largely due to a lack of practical solutions. I think this may be because the US left’s ideas such as throwing away money on long obsolete forms of transport and the “Affordable” Care Act (the latter is actually a right wing policy), as both unaffordable and “radical” as they may seem in some cases, are actually just reinforcements of the bad habits of capitalism such as hyper consumption, work-slavery and of a corrupt government-industrial complex. I would instead advocate radical solutions that are also much easier, such as bicycling, walking and working from home, less consumption, and in the case of medicine a single-payer universal system. We should also embrace new technology under strict government control. For example low cost robo-taxis are a new form of public transport (especially shared ones, with environmental and use taxes) should thankfully obsolete other public and private transit (actually I feel they have already long been obsolete in my mind) because public transport now is hyper-expensive, slow, uncomfortable and never was hygienic.

“We’re arguing that the whole thing is wrong, the whole direction of capitalism, all of marketing, all of education, and so on the whole thing needs to be changed. It’s a much more fundamental challenge. And we have had major difficulties getting published.”
Nick Couldry

I would agree that the whole direction of capitalism needs to be changed. And If he is saying that capitalism needs radical reform, then I agree. I have long thought (since I was a teenager) that the major issue with capitalism is that government shouldn’t use money, so-called-“growth” as a measure. Instead what if government focused on health and well-being as their sole measure of success?

Briefly worth mentioning that Marxism is a proven failure which on many levels is much worse than both capitalism and mixed systems. Also in Marxism people are competing for government funds and resources, and for positions of power and even material privilege, but in this case coming from the government, so Marxism has a problem similar to capitalism.

Now on to your current positioning. If I were a casual observer looking in and didn’t know you better, I might easily conclude that Borja Moya is a hybrid warfare proxy working for the Chinese state or for the current Russian dictator. Why? Because you use symbolism that’s typically associated with antidemocratic movements. In many ways your marketing looks like that of the enemy.

Now I know that’s not your aim, your aim is to help and do good. But when you use terms like Data Rebels or create a new symbol that evokes extremist groups, even too much use of the color black, you are actually working against your own interest.

Many people in the so-called West make the same mistake for whatever reason. Yet many other countries understand the subtleties of propaganda much better than people from so-called Western cultures are for whatever reason far behind.

During the Ukraine Revolution, nearly everybody there understood that any kind of radical appearance or positioning was working against the interests of the Revolution, either intentionally or not. Anybody and everybody that was a radical was suspected of working with the enemy, or for some other cause.

The strategy is to make the enemy look radical, and to make your side look peaceful, normal, fair and so on. Part of this is the use of hopefully quiet provocations (not necessarily physical ones), to get the enemy look radical in their response. If it works right, it even looks like the enemy attacked unprovoked.

Getting the media on your side is key, and a lot of that depends on how things start. Once the media is on your side, they will do a terrible job in reposting because the media always does a terrible job in reporting facts and truth. The media will report its lies as always, but their lies will be on your side.

I think your direction now should be to find a solution. I’d like to see you interview someone working on solutions.

You’re right. We don’t know the solution…Yet. That’s what we need to figure out ASAP.

You couldn’t be more right!

The thing is that all theories have positive core values that sometimes get derailed… The fact that Couldry refers to Marxism doesn’t mean that he supports that model. He’s taking some of those ideas and putting them in context to leverage a point.

As I’ve told you several times, finding solutions is the entire purpose of these interviews. However, I dare to point out that we don’t even agree on the problem. And I don’t mean you and me, but in general. And this is extremely dangerous because it could lead us to wrong solutions.

I think that finding solutions is just as important as finding the root problem.

Thank you for sharing this, @Free!

Right, I’m glad to hear that you’re still analysing the problem because your book Data Dictatorships presents a very bleak future. The book really hits all the points and you also write very well. But I’d say it’s a worst-case scenario and one-sided. Your positioning seems to be an extreme where almost everything that could potentially goes wrong goes wrong. For your theories about the future to come true, would require a chain of future events to all happen which individually may or may not be likely but together have a very low probability. I don’t think such a position works well because if it’s not the most accurate way to put things it limits your works from being published and seen more.

I think Nick Coudlry also faces the same issue, though to a lesser degree. For example on the show Roundtable, Maria Farrell questions if “data colonialism” is the right term to use. I agree with her. This is more like digital empires, which happens to be a more common term used to describe the problem. The digital empire can be a company or a country, but companies and countries are not so intertwined in democratic countries as they are under the brutal suppression of China or Russia’s one man dictatorship.

I think one thing both of you often miss is that technology is normally provided by multiple providers. People, companies, countries can switch and unplug parts at any time. You have a tendency to look at things like either the US or China is providing all of these services, like it’s one big all or nothing and there’s no alternative. Yet there are different companies all over the world and they compete with one another. And there is often a big positive transformative effect with the introduction of new technologies much as there is with the building of basic infrastructure in places which were earlier undeveloped.

China is investing in many developing nations and that is suspicious. I’d say those are actually very risky investments that have poor returns as well. So unfortunately that’s a sign that they’re doing it for influence and power, and to be able to pull strings with debt much like the Russian supreme kleptocrat so famously offers cheap energy to countries he is pulling into submission to his personal ego empire.