Bringing Pleasure Activism to Digital Security and Privacy

In adrienne maree brown’s introduction to Emergent Strategy, she talks about all the different roles she has and how they connect to the idea of emergence. One of the roles she talks about is being a pleasure activist and its connection to harm reduction. In the small number of pages I have read, I have already thoroughly inspired by brown’s work, but I want to take up some space to talk about how harm reduction and pleasure activism connects to my approach to digital security and privacy.

For those who are not familiar with harm reduction, it is an approach used in public health social work that recognizes the pleasure inherent to potentially dangerous activities (typically drug use and sexual activities, whether legal or illegal). It’s goal is to reduce the negative outcomes (harm) from these activities instead of trying to make someone stop these activities. Some common examples are needle exchanges or safer sex programs.

My work in digital security and privacy has focused using a harm reduction approach — even if not stated as such. Key to this is meeting users where they are at and recognizing activities that are ‘pleasurable’ or essential to their work, even if it is dangerous.

Not everyone can simply stop using email, SMS, Facebook, or other ‘dangerous’ tools and platforms.

In my experience, the approach to digital security and privacy is to migrate users to secure and/or privacy respecting platforms or tools that are open source. Advice around mobile phones often simple concludes that cellular networks are insecure, so we should jut not use them or have them with us at direct action. Security and privacy awareness programs and education are used, but typically to direct people to a pre-defined conclusion and those tools and platforms that are already decided upon. Awareness is a means to say “Use Tor. Use Signal.”

By ignoring the the reality of users and not providing for them, we, as information security professionals, tool developers, activists, and educators are putting users at harm.

I want to reduce harm and empower people to use technology securely and as privately as possible. Not introduce or force a dogmatism for particular tools or platforms.

One of my current areas of research is on the security and privacy of dating apps because people use them and will continue using them. I realize that using dating apps or platforms open users up to a number of different privacy disasters, whether an unintentional location disclosure or unethical researchers not trying to de-identify data or mining pictures because everything is “public.” Instead of simply telling people not to use dating apps, I’ve been trying to reduce the harm that can come from dating apps — both through awareness programs/conversations and working with the app developers and/or advocacy groups to provide more seamless options for harm reduction.

I would like to encourage more of us in the digital security and privacy field to adopt a harm reduction approach and become something akin to technology pleasure activists. It starts with listening to users and recognizing what is important to them.