Every month for the past five years, Harlem residents have gathered to discuss digital privacy and how to best protect themselves from intrusive surveillance. Motherboard joined CryptoHarlem founder Matthew Mitchell at one of his cryptoparties to see firsthand how he is empowering people of color, who he says are over policed and heavily surveilled.
Mitchell compared surveillance of the black community to a type of digital Stop and Frisk, a controversial policing practice of detaining and searching citizens on the street for weapons and contraband. According to estimates by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop and Frisk initiatives have led to the interrogation of more than five million New Yorkers since 2002. In every year since its inception, more than half of those stopped have been black.
“I’m a hacker but I’m black first,” Mitchell said. “When you see me a block away you know I’m black. You don’t know I’m a hacker.”
Though physical Stop and Frisk incidents have declined since 2014 (Mayor Bill de Blasio said the program has been “changed intensely”), Mitchell said the threat of overreaching digital surveillance may be even more nefarious.
“You can’t buy a bag of chips in Harlem without being surveilled,” he said.
Large scale surveillance infrastructure, such as the Fusion Centers utilized by the Department of Homeland Security, disportionately track the activities of minority communities, according to Mitchell.
"People say this is the next frontier of civil rights"
“‘Gang’ becomes a codeword for people of color that don’t fit a certain paradigm,” Mitchell told me on the phone.
Mitchell’s Cryptoparties have become popular and have even gotten attention in popular media: Last year, the organization’s name appeared as an easter egg in an episode of USA Network’s Mr. Robot.
Cryptoparty attendees like Philomena Boateng and Idalin Bobe commented on how these events are helping strengthen the local community.
“Harlem is like a cultural hub,” Boateng said. “It is really important to highlight where it has been and where it is going. Including tech in that conversation is important about making sure we can progress.”
“People are hungry for this,” Bobe added. “There are so many community leaders who are already here and coming into a room like this gives you an affirmation.”
In addition to helping community members learn how to protect themselves, Mitchell is using his outlet for outreach and engagement. Every meeting has a particular theme that Mitchell chooses based on current events and community feedback. Prior to the recent cryptocurrency explosion, for example, Mitchell said the he handed out several hundred dollars worth of Bitcoin. Those who held onto the cryptocurrency were pleasantly surprised when its value soared.
Looking forward, Mitchell hopes his initiative will help bring more people of color into information security, where the demand for new skilled professional has never been higher.
“People say this is the next frontier of civil rights,” Mitchell said. “That is a statement I agree with.”