Resisting Big Data: Interfering With ‘Collaboration,’ Nonconsensually

Consider the various image-sharing databases online: Facebook’s photo stores, Instagram, Flickr. These contain trillions of photographs, petabytes of fragile digital data, growing daily, without limit; every day, millions of users worldwide upload the  images they capture on their phones and cameras to the cloud, there to be stored, processed, enhanced, shared, tagged, commented on. And to be used as learning data for facial recognition software–the stuff that identifies your ‘friends’ in your photos in case you want to tag them.

This gigantic corpus of data is a mere court-issued order away from being used by the nation’s law enforcement agencies to train their own facial surveillance software–to be used, for instance, in public space cameras, port-of-entry checks, correctional facilities, prisons etc. (FISA courts can be relied upon to issue warrants in response to any law enforcement agency requests; and internet service providers and media companies respond with great alacrity to government subpoenas.) Openly used and deployed, that is. With probability one, the NSA, FBI, and CIA have already ‘scraped’, using a variety of methods, these image data stores, and used them in the manner indicated. We have actively participated and collaborated, and continue to do so, in the construction of the world’s largest and most sophisticated image surveillance system. We supply the data by which we may be identified; those who want to track our movements and locations use this data to ‘train’ their artificial agents to surveil us, to report on us if we misbehave, trespass, or don’t conform to whichever spatial or physical or legal or ‘normative’ constraint happens to direct us at any given instant. The ‘eye’ watches; it relies for its accuracy on what we have ‘told’ it, through our images and photographs.

Now imagine a hacktivist programmer who writes a Trojan horse that infiltrates such photo stores and destroys all their data–permanently, for backups are also taken out. This is a ‘feat’ that is certainly technically possible; encryption will not prevent a drive from being formatted; and security measures of all kinds can be breached. Such an act of ‘hacktivism’ would be destructive; it would cause the loss of much ‘precious data’: memories and recollections of lives and the people who live them, all gone, irreplaceable.  Such an act of destruction would be justified, presumably, on the grounds that to do so would be to cripple a pernicious system of surveillance and control. Remember that your photos don’t train image recognition systems to recognize just you; they also train it to not recognize someone else as you; our collaboration does not just hurt us, it hurts others; we are complicit in the surveillance and control of others.

I paint this admittedly unlikely scenario to point attention to a few interesting features of our data collection and analysis landscape: a) we participate, by conscious action and political apathy, in the construction and maintenance of our own policing; b) we are asymmetrically exposed because our surveillers enjoy maximal secrecy while we can draw on none; c) collective, organized resistance is so difficult to generate that the most effective political action might be a quasi-nihilist act of loner ‘civil disobedience’–if you do not cease and desist from ‘collaborating,’ the only choice left to others still concerned about their freedom from surveillance might to be nonconsensually interrupt such collaboration.

Talking About Natural Law With Children

Last Thursday, thanks to New York City public schools taking a ‘mid-winter break,’ my daughter accompanied me to Brooklyn College and sat in on two classes. My students, as might be expected, were friendly and welcoming; my daughter, for her part, conducted herself exceedingly well by taking a seat and occupying herself by drawing on a piece of paper and often, just paying attention to the class discussion. She did not interrupt me even once; and I only had to ask her to pipe down a bit when she began humming a little ditty to herself. After the second class–philosophy of law, which featured a discussion of St. Thomas Aquinas and natural law theory–had ended, I asked her what she thought the class was about. She replied, “it was about good and bad.” This was a pretty good answer, but things got better the next day.

On Friday, as we drove to gym for my workout and my daughter’s climbing session, I picked up the conversation again, asking my daughter what she made of the class discussion and whether she had found it interesting. She said she did; so I pressed on and the following conversation resulted:

“Let me ask you something. Would you always obey the law?”


“What if the law told you to do something bad?”

“I would do it.”

“Why? Why would you do something bad?”

“Because I don’t want to go to jail.”

“You know, I’ve been to jail twice. For breaking the law.”


“Well, one time, I was angry with one country for attacking people and dropping bombs on them, so I went to their embassy and protested by lying down on the street. When the police told me to move, I didn’t, and so they arrested me and put me in jail for a day. Another time, I protested our university not paying the teachers enough money for their work, and I was arrested again for protesting in the same way.” [Strictly speaking this is a bad example of civil disobedience; I wasn’t breaking a law I thought unjust, rather, I was breaking a law to make a point about the unjustness of other actions.]

“Did they feed you in jail?”

“Yes, they did.”

“Oh, that’s good.”

“Well, so what do you think? Would you break the law if it told you to do something bad?”


“Why not? The law is asking you to do something bad.”

“What if I was wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if I was wrong, and it wasn’t bad, and the policeman put me in jail?”

“What if you were sure that you were being asked to do something bad?”

“Then I wouldn’t do it.”


“Because I don’t want do bad things.”

“But isn’t breaking the law a bad thing?”


“So, why are you breaking the law?”

“Because it’s asking me to do a bad thing.”

At this point, we were close to our turn-off for the gym and our parking spot, and so our conversation ended. A couple of interesting takeaways from it:

1. We see the social construction of a legal order here in the making; at the age of five, my daughter has already internalized the idea that breaking the law is a ‘bad thing’ and that bad things happen to those who break the law. She can also identify the enforcers of the law.  This has already created a normative hold on her; she was inclined to obey the law even if it asked her to do something bad because she was worried about the consequences.

2. My daughter displayed an interesting humility about her moral intuitions; she wasn’t sure of whether her thinking of some act as ‘bad’ was infallible. What if she was wrong about that judgment?

Note: My reporting of the conversation above might be a little off; I’m reproducing it from memory.

Action As Antidote To Political Anxiety

The spring semester has started today and it is no exaggeration to say that I’ve not gone into any previous semester–over a period extending to the fifteen years I’ve spent here at Brooklyn College–feeling quite as unsettled as I do today. Perhaps it was the third cup of coffee, perhaps it was just the stage-fright that is my usual companion to semester kick-offs. Or perhaps it was just dread. We live in interesting times, and one of the tolls these times exact is a psychological one.

This morning, I met one of my students in my office to go over his plans for an independent study in the philosophy of science this semester. I assigned readings, talked about possible writing assignments, and made some preliminary remarks about how I hoped our fortnightly discussions would go. Our conversation proceeded smoothly in general, but there were a couple of rough spots: first, my student greeted me by asking how I had been, and I found myself unable to answer for a few seconds, and then, when my student told me how he had spending time at JFK providing translation services for the ACLU lawyers helping resolve the fiasco created by Donald Trump’s anti-refugee executive order, I was rendered speechless again.

My student is Egyptian-American; born to, and raised in, America by Egyptian parents . He is one of the brightest and most sincere students I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with here at Brooklyn College. He is hard-working, erudite, passionate, committed to being a good student and a good human being. I am proud of him, and happy to be somehow involved in his education. I am, therefore, protective of him too; I am concerned for his safety and well-being these days. This fear is not a particularly well-formed one, and so it amounts to a species of disabling anxiety. (His country of origin is not one of the blacklisted countries of the executive order, but I was still alarmed to hear his American citizen parents were planning on traveling to Egypt this summer.)

I suspect that what underwrites that my emotional responses to my student’s presence is a deeper worry about my family and friends; there is no doubt that the world today is a more dangerous place than it was on January 19th or November 8th: bigotry and racism have acquired executive power, and it is being exercised vigorously, even if incoherently; political chaos is almost upon us; and much worse apparently awaits.

The only antidote to this quasi-cosmic funk is that old elixir: action. This administration needs toppling and many points of pressure exist in order to do so: pressure on elected representatives to block cabinet nominations for now, and later, against legislative atrocities; financial support to those–like the ACLU and SPLC–fighting legal battles; vigorous public protest, civil disobedience, and direct action, including but not limited to, general strikes. (Perhaps hacktivists will step up and make it harder for the technical infrastructure required to implement Trump and Bannon‘s regime to actually function; on this point, more anon.) Thus far, I’ve written and donated and made a few phone calls; much more needs to be done; therapeutic relief awaits.

Stopping The ‘Muslim Registry’: A Serious Approach

A symbolic act of resistance is being proposed to the Trump administration’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants to the US: right-minded folks should register as Muslims too. This is an essentially well-meaning gesture of solidarity but it is useless. It will accomplish nothing; it will not prevent the registration of Muslims; and worse, it will make many who support Muslims’ right to live free of pernicious discrimination in this land complacent because they will feel they have done enough, shown enough support. If progressive Americans really wish to prevent the registration of Muslims,  then any strategy that does not involve wide scale civil disobedience and direction is not serious. (Currently, the proposed registry aims to register Muslim immigrants from a list of ‘target’ countries deemed ‘risky’¹; other iterations could include registering all Muslim immigrants; and then the most nightmarish scenario of all, the registration of all Muslims, whether immigrants or not, whether citizens or not, whether US-born or not. There is no reason to not guard against these eventualities given a) Trump’s rhetoric in general and b) the views and opinions of those who support him and will be found in his cabinet. The slippery slope is visible, and it declines steeply.)

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The Right Body Language For A Court Appearance

On Wednesday morning, I reported to the New York City Criminal Court to be arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct stemming from my arrest during a civil disobedience protest staged outside the office of the governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, on March 24th. The day proceeded along lines similar to those I had reported in my previous day in court (back in 2014, after protests outside the Israeli mission during the Gaza crisis): meet my fellow defendants; meet our union’s lawyers; wait to be called into courtroom; wait to be called up before judge. We would, in all probability, be granted an ‘adjournment contemplating dismissal’ (ACD)–a deferment for six months, during which time the charge would remain open and after which could be dropped. Unlike my last appearance in court, this time my name was called out in the first group itself.

I walked up to the front of the courtroom and stood in front of the judge. My fellow defendants–three of them–stood next to me. As I stood and waited, I crossed my arms in front of my chest. Seeing this, a court guard–who was handing papers to the judge–walked up to me and told me to put my arms down. He didn’t specify an alternate location; just that the current one wouldn’t do. I complied; I had no intention of arguing with a police officer in a courtroom, thus risking another arrest for ‘disorderly conduct’ even as I was appearing in court for another such charge.

But the business of being told to adopt the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ body language was intriguing and revelatory. So much of what happens in the courtroom is pure performance, a legal theater: the judge’s seat placed on high, the imposing architecture, the formal, stately, convoluted language, the solemnity, the tightly circumscribed procedure, all the better to impress upon legal subjects–sinners, penitents, and legal officers alike–the awe-inspiring power and majesty of the law. Respect; deference to authority; unblinking conformity–these are the values to be reinforced in this space.

My act of crossing my arms was, I suppose, in this context, an insolent gesture: I did not convey the appropriate respect. I was certainly not causing any disruption; I did not talk; I had not raised my voice.  I was not a threat of any sort–in case, you think that crossing arms allows for the concealment of weapons–because I had already been searched upon entrance to the court. No, quite simply, I had to be bent into that shape which would convey the appropriate respect for the court. And also the particular and peculiar blend of humility and servility that the law is looking for in those who ‘commit crimes.’ The guard’s admonishment was a reminder I was not following the director’s stage instructions.

A minute or so later, it was all done, and I headed to campus with a warning from the judge to ‘stay out of trouble.’ That will not be easy if the Governor of New York State does not restore funding to the City University of New York, if the CUNY administration does not sign a new contract with its faculty and staff.

A Strike At CUNY: The Work Yet To Be Done

Over at Sean M. Kennedy strikes a sharply critical note of the CUNY Professional Staff Congress’ tactics in their ongoing struggle with CUNY, New York City, and State administrations. Kennedy takes as as his starting point, the recent civil disobedience action staged last week, and on a couple of occasions, calls for a not-ersatz civil disobedience:

[M]any rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law. [link added]

[W]hat does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

[M]any of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Given Kennedy’s explicit and implicit concern for CUNY students, I thought I would offer some notes on my experiences as a student whose faculty went on strike. That experience, I think, highlights my greatest concerns with a union strategy that includes a strike. I’ve voted in favor of a strike, so I’m not against a strike per se; rather, I think, a great deal needs to be done to prepare the ground for a strike. In that sense, I join in Kennedy’s critique of the PSC’s tactics because that work has not been done yet, and neither does it seem to have been planned for; I just come at it from a different perspective than he does, in the hopes of highlighting a concern that is not raised in his post. (The costs of going on a strike do not, for instance, include a mention of the losses to students: delayed graduation, derailment of educational plans, loss of income dependent on graduation etc.)

During my undergraduate days at Delhi University, the faculty went on strike twice. First in my ‘freshman’ year, for thirty-six days; and then, in my second year, for sixty-six days. The local press, as can be imagined, was hostile: the usual complaints about faculty indolence and self-indulgence–these should be familiar to Americans–came flooding in. More importantly, the students responded with anger and confusion: they did not know why the strike was being called; they had not been supplied with any information about the nature of the negotiations between the university administration and the faculty union; university faculty were subject to the same critical view that school teachers in the US often are–those who can’t, teach; and so on.

The result was that university faculty had practically no support–rhetorical or practical–during their strike. (The first strike failed precisely for this reason, thus necessitating a second strike, but it seemed the lessons of the first time had not yet been learned.) Moreover, the students developed an intense  antipathy to the faculty; this came to a head in the second year, for on that occasion, when faculty returned to teach, students boycotted classes. This boycott did not last long but the bad feelings did.

If the PSC wants to call a strike, it must do much more to communicate to the students–and their families–why such a strike is necessary and how it would benefit students and faculty alike. A strike will not succeed if the students don’t support it.

Note: Here is an older post responding to a New York Times article on the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union strike.

A Day In Gaol: Protesting Andrew Cuomo’s Attack On CUNY

Yesterday I, along with many other members of the City University of New York’s faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC-CUNY) participated in a civil disobedience action outside the New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Across the street from us, other members held a rally; they waved signs, chanted slogans and marched. We were all protesting New York State (and City’s) slow starvation of CUNY–through persistent budget cuts. (See this earlier report too.) Moreover, faculty and staff have now been without a contract for six years. Given the cost of living increases in New York City, this  means that we have been receiving pay cuts for the past six years.

We marched out as a group in rows, arms linked, and then performed a ‘die-in’ in front of the entrance to the office building. We received three warnings from the NYPD to cease and desist; following our non-compliance, we were all arrested and taken to NYPD’s central office at One Police Plaza for booking and post-arrest processing. (Thankfully, the NYPD was not over-enthusiastic about tightening their plastic hand-cuffs.) The usual tedium ensued: first, we waited in the paddy-wagon before being driven off, then on arrival we waited before disembarking. Once that had happened, we moved slowly through several stages of processing. Identity cards were collected, searches conducted, property–including shoelaces–confiscated for holding, mugshots were taken (with a twist that each arrested person ‘posed’ with his arresting officer.) This done, we were sent to a holding cell. I had been assured by my arresting officer–a Pakistani gentleman with whom I struck up a rolling conversation in Hindi-Urdu-Hindustani-Punjabi–that a new streamlined procedure was being followed and that we would be out quickly, but even then, a wait of approximately four hours was still in store.

As was the case in my previous time spent in a NYPD holding cell, conversation with my cellmates was the saving grace of what would otherwise have been an exercise in boredom. I chatted with, among others: a staff member of CUNY’s Murphy Institute who hailed from a family with four generations of union organizers;  a political theorist who analyzes conservative critiques of capitalism; a doctoral student in sociology writing on race and class in social movements; a Brooklyn College sociology professor specializing in studies of policing and police brutality. (In the paddy-wagon too and while waiting in line for processing, there had been wonderful moments of bonding and camaraderie, including the obligatory rendition of ‘Solidarity Forever.’)

Finally, the moment came, as our arresting officer called us out to pick up our property and court appearance notices (we had been charged with ‘disorderly conduct.’) After doing so, we were escorted out to the precinct gates, where we were greeted by our union colleagues, who had kindly arranged for food and snacks and had held on to our backpacks. I was underdressed as I had not anticipated the sharp drop in temperatures, so I quickly ate a sandwich and headed for the downtown Q train to take me back home. I was in bed around midnight.

The ongoing, seemingly nation-wide, assault on public education is one of the most shameful features of modern American life. It is the true negation of the American dream, a central component of which was the promise to educate, and make possible, a better life for those who could not afford it otherwise. An attack on public education is a political act; it loudly and proudly proclaims an anti-intellectual stance; it says that education is a privilege reserved for those able to pay for it. That is not what CUNY is about, and the faculty and staff here will not let the city and state administration forget it.

Note: These articles by Village Voice writer Nick Pintohere and here–provide more useful background on what is going down at CUNY. This article in the Gotham Gazette reports some of the latest developments in the funding crisis.