“I’ll hang out with hackers in hackerspaces and people who do digital security stuff for the United States, and they’ll always say, man, it’s like there are no black people who want to know about this stuff,” Matt Mitchell told Vice‘s Motherboard last year. Mitchell, a security researcher and developer who’s worked at CNN and the New York Times as well as for a slew of tech companies, knows that’s bullshit. These days, he holds a fellowship at the civil rights group Color of Change and organizes Crypto Harlem, a free event aimed at teaching Harlem about information privacy and surveillance — which is increasingly important when you’re living in a neighborhood where the NYPD surveils black teenagers via Facebook, and uses posts on the service to justify indictments.
At Crypto Harlem, people are invited to bring their computers and mobile devices to learn how to protect their data via encryption, whether that means WhatsApp, the Tor browser, or PGP encryption for email. The more-or-less monthly events, held at the Harlem Business Alliance (275 Malcolm X Boulevard, #2, Manhattan, 347-851-7746), usually draw a crowd of sixty or more, and Mitchell holds office hours at least once a month from 6:30 to 9:30 in the evening. Mitchell — texting via the end-to-end-encrypted messenger app Signal, of course — likens the project to a public health initiative, writing that it provides “a digital security clinic in Harlem, just like the city mobile dental clinic.”
Mitchell has designed the events to be a space safe from what might otherwise be prying eyes. At one recent Crypto Harlem event that included a panel led by Times tech reporter Jenna Wortham, Mitchell decided to operate under the Chatham House Rule: no audio or video recording, and while anyone present was free to use or disseminate information and quote, they weren’t allowed to attribute those comments. Mitchell says it led to “candid answers and personal stories from hackers, human rights defenders, law enforcement, and entrepreneurs,” who were on the panel but might not have been able to speak as freely if the rule weren’t in place.
The room was packed, and afterward, Wortham tweeted: “Tonight’s @cryptoharlem is was PACKED and BLACK AF. Pipeline problem my azzzzz.” It was an open message to tech companies (hi, Facebook!) that blame an empty “pipeline” of applicants for their paltry numbers of black employees. To top it off, Mitchell is also part of a weekly roundtable discussion (published on forbes.com) that scrutinizes episodes of Mr. Robot for its depiction of hackers and hacker culture. (Apparently the show does pretty well in that regard.) If that’s not legit, I’m not sure what is.