Grantee Highlight: Equality Labs is Strengthening Digital Defenses for Activists

Grantee Highlight: Equality Labs is Strengthening Digital Defenses for Activists

Erin  Reynolds

The weekend in 2017 that neo-Nazis descended on Berkeley, California, Brian Nadler* was volunteering with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). He was manning one of the local hotlines which on-the-ground legal observers could call to share live updates on demonstrations or arrests. That Saturday, a group of white nationalists got ahold of the local NLG hotline number and distributed it to their networks, encouraging people from around the country to call in and tie up the phone lines by berating the volunteers or fabricating stories.

It wasn’t until after midnight that the phone lines quieted down that day, when Nadler was finally able to leave the NLG office. He had the calls forward to his personal cell phone and went to sleep. Unfortunately, a bug in the phone system revealed Nadler’s identity to a heckler who called overnight, and in the morning Nadler awoke to a voicemail of the caller gloating: “Oh, you idiot, you’re done for! Now we know who you are, where you live and work. We’re going to come and get you. We’re going to dox you [publish your personal information on the internet], we’re gonna beat you up and burn your car.”

Nadler was spooked and called NLG for help. Right away, someone in the guild referred him to a woman named Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of a nonprofit organization called Equality Labs, which specializes in digital security for activist groups. Nadler called Soundararajan to explain his predicament, and later that same day she and one of her colleagues came over to Nadler’s home. They spent more than six hours helping him erase his digital footprint, secure his accounts and devices, and learn how to safeguard his identity online.

Soundararajan founded Equality Labs in 2015 as the first South Asian American arts, organizing, and technology collective led exclusively by Dalit Bahujan Americans (those who would have been born into the lowest caste in India). But as they began to publicly critique issues like caste apartheid, Islamophobia, and extremism, their staff came under attack from Hindu extremists and white supremacists. Soundararajan began receiving rape and death threats from online trolls, a member of their team was hacked, and the location of their safe house was revealed, causing them to have to evacuate. She realized that Equality Labs needed to create a comprehensive, strategic approach to digital security and harassment not only for themselves but to share with other at-risk groups.

Although Equality Labs was originally founded to work with South Asian communities, the whole landscape changed after the 2016 presidential election. Overnight, what seemed like a specific problem for a specific community became an American problem. At the time, Equality Labs was the only digital security firm that had women of color, Muslim, and South Asian trainers who took a trauma-based approach and could speak to security with the lenses of religious freedom, South Asian equity, and gender-based violence. That combination raised their profile nationally and enabled them to support hundreds of groups around the country. From the time of the election until the inauguration, just under three months, they completed 70 trainings.

Now, Equality Labs is building a mobile app for digital self-defense, currently called Digital Security for All, which will give users a short assessment of their digital security knowledge and provide specialized training and curriculums. It will also function as a platform for monitoring threats against members around the country. “Think of this app as an antivirus software,” said Soundararajan. “If you download the app, educate yourself, and follow the infrastructure recommendations, you’ll be more resilient than when you started.”

A few weeks after the voicemail incident, Nadler attended one of Equality Labs’ digital security workshops. He was impressed to see that they were teaching people the same security measures that they had taught him–except this time it was to a room full of activists and nonprofit organizations. These days, Nadler is an outspoken advocate of Thenmozhi and Equality Labs, sharing what he learned with others and telling everyone who will listen about their work. No white supremacists have threatened him again.

The San Francisco Foundation has provided critical funding to Equality Labs since 2017, including a grant to support new digital security trainings and the development of “train the trainer” workshops.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Erin Reynolds
Erin Reynolds