Gus Hosein “Internet privacy has been a particular challenge in that the interest and awareness of it is at an all time high — but the grip on it is at an all time low.”

Gus has worked at the intersection of technology and human rights for over twenty years. He is the Executive Director of Privacy International, a British NGO which combats invasion of privacy by governments and corporations. A specialist in data protection, anti-terrorist policy and civil liberties, Hosein is known for his work on the conflict between ICT (Information and Computing Technology) and human rights.


Gus’ Story

Start with giving us a broad overview of your work and then, perhaps, highlighting some specific projects that you’re working on.

For around 20 years now, I’ve been working in the field of technology and human rights, particularly around the issue of privacy and surveillance. I’m the executive director of Privacy International (PI) and since 2011, we have grown from a staff of 2 and a half to 21 people, including a Mozilla Fellow.

The work that I’ve done over the years has changed dramatically, but it’s always been at the nexus of changing technology and changing society, and in between that wonderful sandwich is privacy and rights.

Our work does focus on the traditional areas of government surveillance — what capabilities governments hold and which tools are they using today and elements of what they’re going to use tomorrow. We also focus on building a global movement to defend privacy, with a strong emphasis on the Global South.

The third focus is the exploration of defenses from data exploitation — a future facing domain to address the fact that increasingly there’s data everywhere and data is being exploited by companies and governments. We are addressing what to do about that from legal and technological perspectives so that we can still protect people’s rights, and coming up with the solutions for tomorrow as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, my job as executive director is that I get to do very little of that sexy work. I spend most of my time making sure that my colleagues have a safe space and the resources under which to do their work to the best of their capabilities. I get to, of course, do a lot of work on strategy, which I love — but I’m not in the trenches as much as I should be.

I’m curious. You mentioned that your work has changed dramatically. What are some of the trends in that change?

That’s a good question. When I got into the field in 1996, privacy was relatively uncontested as a notion. People got it, and they said, “Yeah, I care about my privacy. I don’t give my telephone number out.”

For all the work that we’ve done, all the investment and debates, all the public engagements we’ve done, it’s almost remarkable how much of that has backslid. It’s been a particular challenge in that the interest and awareness of privacy is at an all time high — but the grip on it is at an all time low. People don’t feel like they have any control over it despite all of the investment and efforts that we’ve put into to it.

I use that as an example of the challenge — trying to find a way to do effective work in a domain that involves the constant changing of technology and the constant changing of society.

That’s going to be true of every domain — it’s just that privacy feels it more so, because we are, by nature, sandwiched between a changing society and a changing technology. When we get into issues of NGOs that do work on medical issues, they’re going to be facing that more in the future than they have in the past.

We’re on the bleeding edge of this challenge, which makes it terribly exciting, but it is the fundamental challenge of our work.

Thinking about your work, can you hone in on a specific example? I’m looking for an anecdote here of a time where you felt a sense of success.

I’m always nervous about talking about success or achievements just because I know what it takes to get something across the finish line and involves so many people. I hate it when an NGO stands up and says, “Hey, we did that.” When in reality, I know that it took so much more than just their clever campaign.

What I hear you saying is it’s more of an attribution problem. We understand that it comes from all these places, and there’s all these factors. What I’m really looking for is your internal feeling like, “Oh, this is a good thing. We made a little headway here. We, all of us together.”

There’s two examples — let me start with the easier one. It’s something that we definitely can own because it’s more inward facing. December of this year, 2016, the end of a terrible year — and I think we can all agree this was a terrible year — we ran an end of year planning session for the staff at PI. I was able to walk in the door that morning knowing that we’d just received two additional funding commitments — meaning our organization would be sustainable for the next three to four years. We’ve never had that before.

This field — this domain we exist in has never had an organization of our size able to say to their employees, “You are employed for at least the next three years to do the wonderful work you do.” That was a sense of accomplishment — twenty years in this field and it was only about five years ago that we had monthly salaries going out to people.

Before, we had to practically fake it in order to make it look like there was something behind PI. That’s how every NGO is until they become professionalized and institutionalized. That wonderful moment in December — where I realized we haven’t become institutionalized, and yet we have these resources that before I could only have prayed for. On the day, though, I didn’t give the team much time to really celebrate that fact because we have more urgent things on our plate.

Plus, I find success mildly terrifying — I hope everybody in this field does — because it’s fleeting and it’s so tempting and easy to rest on it. To celebrate it would be to celebrate only that we’ve proven that we can get to where we are but we need so much more to prove our right to exist.

I spent the rest of the planning day on that cold December, telling the staff that amongst the worst things that could happen to us right now is that we just coast. I don’t want us to coast. If 2016 is a reminder of anything, is that we made a number of decisions in 2016 we’re going to pay for in 2017 and beyond. PI has to be ready for that.

We need an organization and a field that’s not just going to coast, not just going to institutionalize and become part of the fabric of debates, but an organisation that is actually going to continue to work to shake the foundations that are being built in this illiberal world, and make sure that we build it the right way. How the hell do you do that?

After all this time of trying to prove you have the right to exist, people turn around and say, “Yeah, you have a right to exist. What are you going to do about it?” Well, what the hell are we going to do about it? That’s the inward facing moment.

It means that you have the buy-in. You have the people out there who want to see you succeed. You have all the tools that you dreamt of having, and you got them. What are you going to do? That’s why it is that profound joy to know that you’ve achieved something, but also the sense of duty that you got to do a hell of a lot more.

And the second example?

I’ll try to use an example that matters to people rather than matters to us executive directors who are just happy to have an organization.

The reason I’m cautious about attribution is that we tend to take a field building approach to the work that we do. For example, our work in the Global South isn’t about us opening up offices across the Global South so that we can say, “Hey, we are an international NGO based in London — but don’t worry, we have real people working in Uganda, too.” Instead, we preferred to fund an organization in Uganda and utilize our resources to support and build up that organization, and over a dozen other organisations in other countries.

Similarly, and the example I want to use, is our work on ID cards in United Kingdom — a fight that happened post 9/11 until 2010. Rather than having us as Privacy International fight the ID cards campaign in what was essentially a UK fight — which would have meant dropping everything and throwing 80 percent of our resources behind a UK political debate — we helped create the NGO that fought the campaign for an eight-year period, No2ID.

We gave it the resources, the contacts, and worked very closely with that NGO throughout its time — strategising where we were falling short, what we could do, and what other allies we could bring in. While we were not the leading edge of the campaign, we were the ones who motivated it, who gave it the breadth that it needed to have.

The nine year struggle ended in 2010 with the UK election. As one of the issues on the agenda, the outgoing government fought to keep the ID card system and ultimately lost. The day came when the new government physically destroyed the ID card system, where they had all the data on a hard drive and spent, at the time, $600,000 to have that disk destroyed properly.

We don’t get victory moments that often. We didn’t really celebrate — we just had a drink session one night with all the people who were part of that fight from across British society. It’s quite a symbol when something is like that is destroyed. Usually, you have to settle for, “Oh well, we’ve got an amendment in a law,” or, “Oh, there’s a few more safeguards.” This was an actual destruction of something that a government had been pursuing for 20 to 30 years.

Although it took a long time — and a lot of failures — we were able to reverse it. We failed at the parliamentary level where we couldn’t stop the law from being passed. We failed at the implementation level when they started building the system. Somehow, we’ve managed to get it beat even after all that momentum had been built up around it.

It required a systemic approach at campaigning. I didn’t think we had it in us, but it proved that we could do it, collectively. It’s more than just jumping in at a moment and winning a headline — or convincing a politician to do something for you, so you can tweet about it the next day. It was about changing a field — getting to the point where the next Prime Minister was speaking about the virtues of defense of privacy and why ID cards are incompatible with that. That’s real impact. I can’t point to many of those, but I know when it’s there.

How about an example of a challenge — either one that’s top of mind or a sticky, wicked, recurring challenge that you face.

The sticky, wicked, recurring challenge you face as the executive director of an NGO full of passionate people, is how the heck do you manage passionate people? Management is already hard — but in the NGO sector you have to manage passionate people with a sense of purpose — a great hard challenge.

It’s the challenge of building an organization that can actually deliver when the most important resources of the organization are the people, but the people are all there because they want to create change.

They all have their headstrong ideas of what that change should be, and it might actually be incompatible with the organizational mission with a multi-year strategy or the organization’s funding model. How do you make that work?

I’ve spoken to a lot of other executive directors and a lot of other organizations around this. It’s interesting that people don’t like talking about it. I had to set up a drinking society in the UK of the executive directors of NGOs so that they can come out and speak openly and honestly about this challenge.

It’s endemic to this field. You have passionate people — but if you want this field to be around for a long time, it has to deliver. How do you get passionate people to deliver? That’s the sticky challenge.

Apart from that, it’s always the challenge of how do you build? Whether you build a public movement or build a movement of organizations — how do you build? When attention spans are short, when funders move from issue to issue, when you as an individual have to grow as well to appreciate what this change really means and what this impact really means — how do you build an organization? How do you do all of that at the same time? That’s the other fundamental challenge.

Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe Internet Health. What for you, and I really want to focus on the for you part here, is a healthy Internet?

I hesitate, because my default and gut reaction to that is this: a healthy internet is an absolutely messy one — one that is full of vivaciousness and diversity and not knowing where it’s going to be tomorrow. It’s such a far cry from where we are right now. It’s only because of organizations like Mozilla that there’s anybody thinking about that kind of Internet.

The kind of internet being built elsewhere in the world— whether is because the governments or whether it’s because of companies — it’s a stale internet. It’s a closed, and it’s a non-dynamic place, whether economically dynamic or socially dynamic.

It’s just a sad set of developments. It’s so understandable that way, but I really want the internet to go back to being messy.

I’m sensing like a punk ethos here.

Yeah, except I’m very conservative — that’s the amazing thing. If we had a messy Internet, I probably would revert to using Facebook all the time — and yet I don’t use it now. I’m terrified by the current direction the internet is heading — where there isn’t going to be color in modern life. I guess I like to be conservative knowing that there’s so much color elsewhere.

Moving now to this idea of openness and working open. What does the concept of working open mean to you?

It means allowing your ideas to be challenged — whether it’s at the micro level within an organization or at the macro level within a domain within your field. Or even larger than macro — knowing and learning from ideas and that your ideas are challengeable.

I’m so glad you asked that question. It’s the first time I’ve articulated it this way. It is the most important thing we can do today, and we’re doing it badly — I’m doing it badly. Currently, we keep our ideas in echo-chambers — it’s easy — but these echo-chambers are what is killing civil society at the moment.

Whether it’s my own organization or across my field, we’re not making the efforts to identify the limits of our own argumentation — the boundaries at which our arguments start to disintegrate and die. We have to be hunting those down, not just so we can make stronger arguments, but so we can understand the world better — we’re not doing that.

A standard and controversial example of this is when we use the term “human rights” in a fight and we think we win because of we’ve said something is a ‘human right’. We think that when we use human rights in an argument it’s the trump card to tell government, “Hey, we’re owed this right because it’s a human right.” Human rights are a contested idea to so many people yet we lose those audiences when we stop trying to convince. As a field and as an NGO, we think of human rights as a currency — it’s not. We have to understand everything is contestable and we should be thinking and working in this way.

Maybe it just goes back to the fact that I work in the field, again, where we’re being sandwiched between changing technology and changing society. We can’t take anything for granted. We can’t presume that people understand what we’re talking about and we can’t presume any tool we have today will be around tomorrow.

We need openness to remind ourselves of the would-be hostile environment in order to ensure we have the best mindset to fight the fights that need to be fought.

Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them? What has that been like for you?

I’ve known about the two arms of Mozilla for a while. We’ve worked off and on quite distantly with members of staff of the non-foundation side. It was only when Brett Gallo got in touch when we applied to host the Mozilla Fellowship that I worked with the foundation side — that was about a year and a half ago. I really didn’t know much about how the Mozilla Foundation worked.

When we sat down, I was expecting a standard meeting of like, “OK, here’s the funder — you need to do this.” Instead, it was a dynamic conversation — one of those conversations that you didn’t want it to end because you were having so much fun exploring each other’s ideas. After we got the Mozilla Fellow approval, we went to New York to meet with the other Mozilla-host organizations and to meet with Mozilla staff and had more of those dynamic conversations. That’s what every interaction with the Mozilla Foundation has been like.

We spend time talking about the uncertainties — about how it would be great if we could all do this. It’s that dreaming and exploring together that is so unique — I can’t point to another organization that I get to interact with where I get to do that.

Tell me about a time where Mozilla had impact on your life, your work, or your organization. You’ve hinted at that with the space to dream and explore ideas together. I’m wondering if you want to add something else or more detail.

The Fellows were in London for the Mozilla conference in October. It was an incredibly busy time for me and for the work I was doing. The Mozilla staff and Fellows came to the front room of our office — an open space — and worked cooperatively but independently.

I kept on wanting to go out and talk to a few of them — to try and coordinate something with them, some sort of meeting to channel our energies in the same direction. Instead, it was a chaotic afternoon. I finally managed to free up 10 minutes just as I heard they were all starting to leave. I rushed out to sit with Sarah Haghdoostr from Mozilla.

It was less than a 10-minute conversation, but in that 10 minutes, we were able to resonate on the fact that we were both dealing with the exact same topic at the exact same time, that we were seeking similar solutions to that topic, and that we were committed to working together on that as we went forward.

Something that would take days of negotiations between one NGO and another NGO, or an NGO and a funder — took only minutes for us to do with Mozilla. It took 10 minutes of a rushed conversation to realize that we get each other, we share each other’s values, and we share each other’s approaches. It’s just a matter of having your heads together for a very short period of time for that spark to come out and then you move forward.

There was nothing sensational about that moment — we didn’t high five at the end of it — it was just like, “Yeah, this is how we work.” It’s nice to have open synergy with a person and an organization.

I’m wondering if you could tell me about a time where you had a disappointing interaction with Mozilla, or more broadly, some type of critical feedback that you would have.

When we were in New York at the host meet-up I got to meet amazing organizations, who were also hosts, and we had so many great interactions. The two days were organized incredibly well.

The only criticism I have — and this is very possibly by design — is that there wasn’t enough commitment for all the Mozilla people to be around for the whole event. It felt like on Day 1, they were all asked to be there and on Day 2 a number of them were gone — although, we were left with incredibly great Mozilla people and the ones responsible for the project.

I keep thinking about the fact that they are a virtual organization where they’re all separated geographically — one person was heading back to Toronto and another was heading off to the West Coast. It makes it all a little bit ephemeral.

I was a little disappointed that we couldn’t keep that together for 48 hours and I worry that it might affect the health of the organization as a result. Everything is so virtual and they can hardly get together at the same time and physical space to do something — what does that mean for them?

Finally, this is the fantasy question here. If you had access to 10 skills, and you could tell me what those skills look like, volunteer, collaborators, or contributors, what would you ask them to do?

I’d want 10 freely, thinking people — probably in the arts — whether it’s sound, image, moving picture. I’d want more creativity in the domain of rights and technology. The field is so quickly at risk of becoming a religious field where it’s all about which dogma you believe in or what you recite before you say something of consequence.

This is, again, is true of every field, I want to make sure that privacy isn’t losing its creative grounds. Like my answer to the open Internet, we need to maintain some level of messy, in a symbolic way and art would help with that. I’m not capable of thinking enough in that way — that’s why I want those people to help.