Reportback: E-Security for Social Justice Oral Historians

On February 3, a group of us met via video chat to discuss "E-Security for Oral Historians in the Age of Trump." Here is a reportback from our conversation, and some resources we collected. Thanks to all who participated! And if you want to learn more and are in NYC, join us in person for a follow-up workshop Feb. 22:

How can oral historians stay on top of the technologies and practices that can help protect ourselves and our narrators from surveillance and security threats? Certain measures can be taken to make our use of digital technologies and online networks more safe, but more intensive tactics should be considered in some cases, such as resorting to analog or offline media, anonymity or use of pseudonyms, and/or omitting certain biographical questions. We must work much harder to ensure that available safety measures are taken at the institutions and archives where we work, or where we donate interview collections. Oral historians should also take basic precautions to safeguard their personal information when it includes information about their work, for example securing an email account or phone/text used to communicate with narrators. While those who work with particularly vulnerable populations may be already thinking about these issues, we believe that they are relevant to all oral historians. The more we all incorporate these strategies into our practice, the safer the larger community will become. As we consider the impact of security-based measures, we must also reflect on what this means to the practice of oral history, and the changing utility of oral histories to researchers in the future. We will look into establishing a training session on e-security as it relates to oral history, both through OHA and Groundswell, and will begin looking for relevant case studies as a mode of outreach to our broader community of oral historians.

The Cloud, the Internet, and Digital Technologies

●      What is the appropriate level of concern/panic?

○      Apply Threat Modeling

■      What do I have that could be accessed?

■      What happens if someone gets access to it?

■      How can I prevent this potential access from happening?

●      How to improve e-security in personal and professional practice?

○      Some files are unsafe for the cloud; should be stored on analog formats, computer not connected to the internet, or hard drives instead

○      Files uploaded to the cloud can be encrypted, yet this compromises quality of files

●      How do we build the vulnerability of digital technologies into our planning?

○      Stay abreast of these fast-changing issues and take measures to update security when possible

○      Reconsider the value of analog data for certain content

Relationships with Institutions re: Narrators and Interviewers

●      How can we work to ensure the privacy of oral histories within public institutions?

○      Ask archives about their internal security measures (not just access policies)

○      Convey the potential dangers when we seek informed consent

●      What are the options for security for individuals, poorly resourced institutions, or institutions that can’t guarantee protections?

○      Anonymity

■      Use aliases and striking identifying info

■      Develop a legal release that protects anonymity

■      Relinquish narrators’ ties––but also rights––to interview for security reasons

○      Save Less

■      Ask fewer identifying biographical questions

■      Save necessary but sensitive info in analog format

■      Make schedule for deleting sensitive info

  • Institutional Review Boards

○      IRBs could enforce new level of safety/privacy measures

○      IRBs could be subject to sanctions and may turn over information

Learning from Communities

●      What can we learn from older generations of activists and marginalized communities––those who have generations of lived experience of security risks and vulnerabilities––about this issue?

○      Refrain from paternalist explanations of danger and leave decisions up to narrators

○      Recognize Security Culture as a mode of solidarity

Next Steps

●      Expand and continue this conversation

○      Request relevant trainings at OHA

○      Consider Oral History in the Digital Age as an excellent forum for exploring this topic further through case studies

○      Propose a panel to OHA on this topic

○      Share summary with Groundswell who may develop training sessions

●      Potential modes of outreach to institutions that work with oral histories

○      Approach the OHA about advocating to institutions on behalf of at-risk narrators

○      We as individuals work to make the institutions we work with more secure on a case by case basis


●      A First Look at Digital Security from Access Now (good starting point, includes case studies for threat modeling)

●      Self Defense for Journalists (basic steps and additional links)

●      Matt Mitchell’s work in general (@geminiimatt)

●       Electronic Future Foundation's Surveillance Self-Defense (thorough resource for threat modeling)

●       Holistic Security (strategy manual for human rights defenders, includes discussion of communities and collective memory)