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Closing the Digital Security Gap in Harlem


If you know how to protect yourself online, it might be because of where you live. Education about digital security is not evenly spread out in the United States. Experts call this problem the digital security gap, and Harlem is a perfect example. The other day, reporter Megan Marrelli went to the neighborhood to learn about a new project in the works; one that’s trying to make Harlem, and other similar communities across the U.S., safe from internet hacks.

MARRELLI: Access to online privacy has a lot to do with race and class. A few days ago about forty people gathered in a coworking space in Harlem for a Cryptoparty, which is less of a party and more of a monthly meet-up. Here’s Gassou Lelenta, one of the participants:

LELENTA: It’s always good to know what the pitfalls are and what the vulnerabilities of yourself as a citizen.

MARRELLI: Education about digital security is especially important in Harlem, but it’s hard to find here. The Cryptoparty is run by a guy named Matt Mitchell who is trying to bridge Harlem’s digital security gap, by educating his neighborhood about online privacy.

MITCHELL: I’m Matt Mitchell, I’m a security researcher and the founder of CryptoHarlem. It was around the time of a lot of police shootings of African Americans in this country…

MARRELLI: Matt is talking about the police shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the #BlackLivesMatter movement that started in 2013 and the Ferguson protests in 2014.

MITCHELL: Today if you’re lesbian, gay, if you’re gender non-conforming, if you’re black or brown you self-identify as Muslim, if you’re undocumented. You’re going to find that this kind of technology has a much harsher effect on you. A more negative effect on you.

MARRELLI: That’s because police go online and look through the social media accounts of Harlem residents to figure out who’s who in the neighborhood– they’ll  take residents in for questioning and make arrests based on Facebook likes and Instagram photos. I took a walk to hear how local residents feel about this.

COLES: It’s creepy.

MARRELLI: That’s 26-year- old Apollo Coles. I found him sitting on a quiet bench in Marcus Garvey Park. He’s had police look through his online activity a bunch of times.

COLES: Facebook and Instagram stands for FBI.

MARRELLI: Apollo says he and a lot of his friends have been brought in for questioning by police because the cops have tracked them on Facebook and Instagram. I asked him if he’d ever heard of a Cryptoparty.

COLES: I never thought about that but that is a good idea. Because I see a lot of people targeted because of social media[…] it happens more often than you think.

MARRELLI: In order to help residents keep their private lives private, a national initiative is partnering up with community leaders like Mitchell to help residents like Apollo. The spearhead of this project is a guy in California, named Josh Levy. He says that even though a lot of low-income communities have worked to bridge the digital security gap, most still don’t have resources to keep themselves fully protected.

LEVY: The goal of this project is to connect those frontline organizations and people working within them…to connect them to digital security experts.

MARRELLI: The initiative Josh is launching is called the Digital Security Exchange, which is going to bring experts into neighborhoods like Harlem to teach residents about the topic. He is a self- admitted academic white guy, and so he says it’s important that the message comes from within the community.

LEVY: So you need somebody who is part of that community so that there’s trust already built and you’re not starting from zero. You don’t want to have a cis white, well- meaning man parachuting into an LGBTQ community of color and saying let me help you. That’s probably going to go pretty badly.

MARRELLI: Matt says he feels the same way.

MITCHELL: When we’re talking about fighting this technology we have to be talking about giving resources to the directly affected so they can solve their own problems because only they will know how best to do that. So that’s what I see myself what my role is with that digital security exchange thing.

MARRELLI: The Digital Security Exchange is not only going to provide education, it’s also going to give funding to communities experiencing a digital security gap. The project is expected to launch in communities in New York and the rest of the U.S. by next year.

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