The rise of tech-worker activism

By Annalee Newitz and Cyrus Farivar

Video by Chris Schodt, production by Justin Wolfson.

In this episode of Ars Technica Live, we spoke with Leigh Honeywell, a security engineer who has worked at several large tech companies as well as the ACLU. She's been at the forefront of worker organizing in the tech industry, organizing protests against data-driven profiling and founding Hackerspaces in both Canada and the United States. Recently, she founded the company Tall Poppy to protect tech workers from abuse online.

We began by talking about how she created the Never Again pledge, signed by hundreds of tech workers, which was a direct response to President Trump's openness to tracking Muslims in the US using big data. She said it was a turning point when tech workers realized that the systems they built weren't just helping people. These systems could also be weaponized and used for surveillance and racial profiling. People signing the pledge promised to quit their jobs before designing a database for tracking Muslims or any other vulnerable group.

In some ways, the Never Again pledge provided a template for other kinds of worker activism, including the Google walkouts and protests against developing software for the military. Honeywell talked about some of the factors that have driven tech workers to see their jobs as political. A lot of those factors involve interference during the 2016 US presidential election, but that's not all. Everyone, not just tech workers, is realizing that what happens online has real-world consequences.

That realization was a major reason why Honeywell founded Tall Poppy, a startup devoted to helping companies protect their workers from online harassment or abuse. Many people working at game companies or social media platforms are singled out by disgruntled users for abuse and campaigns to get them fired. Often, company leaders don't understand why it's happening or how to deal with it.

Honeywell stressed that there are both technical and social solutions to this problem. Tech workers in these environments need better security so that angry users can't take over their accounts or dox them. She talked about simple steps people can take, such as using two-factor authentication on all accounts.

But she also said that companies need to be more aware of how users are interacting with tech workers. When rules change in a game or somebody's social media account is flagged, that can lead irate users to target workers. An extreme example would be the YouTuber who was de-monetized and showed up at YouTube headquarters with a gun. But there are countless other examples where users tried to get workers fired or simply abused them relentlessly online.

This is when training and even therapy can help.

We concluded with a discussion of where tech activism is going next (hint: data and privacy are involved) and some terrific audience questions.

Listing image by Chris Schodt / Justin Wolfson