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Emily Gorcenski

Voting Machines and a Road to Accidental Activism

Sept 16, 2017 at 2pm


Content warning political discussions, violent images (including Nazi and KKK imagery)

EMILY: Whose streets?

AUDIENCE: Our streets!

EMILY: Whose streets?

AUDIENCE: Our streets!

EMILY: I’m Emily Gorcenski, here in solidarity with people marching today to protest an unjust system. This talk is going to be heavy. These content warnings—I can't even describe. They don't do justice to the topics I have to discuss. It's okay to cry during this talk. It's okay to walk out. This is not so much a talk. It's a story. And it's a story about the last year of my life. And it's not been an easy one. When I submitted this proposal—things were a little bit different. That was back in April. So what I'm gonna be talking about today is... The first half of this is going to be the talk that I was picturing myself giving. That I intended to give. And the second half of this talk is going to be what this talk became. So in the description of this, I have this phrase. That I was sent down this path to becoming “an accidental activist with an unusual tendency to end up in the newspaper.” And looking back on that, if I could go back in time to April, I would be like, “Oh, you sweet summer child. You have no idea.” This story, like every terrible story, in 2017, begins with a tweet. Somebody is like, “I want to tell you a story that begins with a tweet.” You say, “I have to go to the bathroom” and just leave. But none of you have done that so far. We're gonna be all right.

EMILY: Back in November... This was three weeks after the election. We have all been a little bit maybe in shock. And it was the day after Thanksgiving. I decided to use my background as a software engineer, working in medical devices in the aerospace industry to look into electronic voting machines and explore what types of software certification were required for voting machines. And it turns out there's very little. And it's voluntary. And not every state has to adhere to it. But moreover, the actual software certification for a voting machine is pretty weak. And this was really interesting to me. Because I worked in medical devices, and there's this story... If you're in technology, you might be familiar with Therac25. If you're not in technology, basically what this was... This was a radiation therapy machine, a electron beam machine, that back in the '70s and '80s managed to have six incidents where the radiation beam was way too strong. Multiple orders of magnitude stronger than what it should have been. Or multiple times stronger than what it should have been. And four people ended up dying as a result of this flaw. But it was sporadic and hard to identify. And after some investigation, they found this was an error caused by software. The code for this machine actually killed people. And when the FDA investigated this, they pivoted and created software guidelines for medical devices. And if you work in medical devices, you know that these are a real pain to adhere to. But this is important, because this saves lives. And so having this experience, I looked into voting machines. Okay. What types of certifications exist? They have all types of stuff about the hardware. So voting machines... We know they're robust to high humidity environments, vibration sensitive, shock-protected. All sorts of stuff like that. But the software process that they go through is nothing more than code linting. It's like a proofreader for your code. It doesn't actually check to see if the code is correct. It just checks to see if it's formatted and adheres to some guideline properly. If you designed a toaster and in the operator's manual, you said please remove the bagel with a butter knife and the editor came back and said, "Your grammar is good. Let's ship it." So this is an issue, because we just had a major presidential election. And when I was looking into this, Jill Stein was doing her recount stuff in Michigan and Pennsylvania. And this was kind of a hot button topic and this thread I made on Twitter went viral. And I found myself in the newspaper quite a bit. Questioning openly the integrity of the election that we just had. And this is a problem. Because this is not really the first time that I have done technological activism that has gotten attention.

EMILY: Earlier last year there was a controversy over a conference called LambdaConf. They had invited a white supremacist to give a talk. And when the technology community found out about this, they protested and asked the organizers to disinvite this person. The organizers refused. And in the fallout of this issue, all the people who signed the petition were doxxed and put on a list called the SJW list. I have my very own entry. This is a little bit of a problem. Because if you dig into the SJW list, you'll find that it was created by somebody named Milo Yiannopoulos. Not actually created by, but done with his guidance, his supervision, and his support. Milo Yiannopoulos was hired by Steve Bannon to write for Breitbart last year. Steve Bannon at this time had taken a job as the White House chief strategist. So here I am, in the newspaper, in three languages, on three continents, openly questioning the integrity of the election, and I asked myself... What do you do when you're on a hit list that's three handshakes from the president of the United States, openly questioning whether he was elected in earnest? So I fled the country. And I didn't, like, go to Canada. Some people are like, “Oh, if Trump gets elected, I'm gonna go to Canada.” No, I went all the way to Prague. I was like, “You know what? Peace out. I'm six time zones away. Y'all have fun.”

EMILY: So I went to Prague and decided that I would lay low. I went just days before the inauguration. While I was there, I studied the history. And Prague has a deep history of activism. This month that I lived there really rooted in me what it meant to be a technological activist. In 1968, the Prague Spring happened. Vaclav Havel, possibly with some support from the American CIA, roused some rabble. There were many protests. The Soviet Union ended up invading Czechoslovakia. The next year, January, a student, 19 years old, named Jan, self-immolated on the steps of a museum. In the center of Prague. A few days later, Jan Ziet would do the same. Killing themselves. Walking by their memorial, I asked myself what it must feel like to be involved in a movement so strong, against a state so powerful, that you are willing to give your life to speak out against it. While I was there, as you may remember, in the weeks following the election, we had the immigration ban. And I went to Pinkasova synagoga, a museum in the Jewish quarter of Prague, and in the walls are panels with names painted upon them. These are the names of the Czech, Selacian, Moravian, Bohemian Jewish people that were taken in the Shoah. And you walk in and you see the antechamber and you see three panels with names that look like this. And then you realize that there's another room with more panels. And then you realize that there are seven rooms of these panels. 75,000 names in total. And I was with my partner, who is converting to Judaism. Was wearing a tichel. And we saw a woman with a hijab, touring it with us, during the height of what was going on, knowing that we had to do something to stop what was happening in this country.

EMILY: So I decided that the platform that I had built in technological activism was not enough to stay in the lane of the technology industry. That there was something bigger that needed to be discussed. That I had to use the privilege that I had and the skills that I had to push back in a meaningful way. And when it came out that a bunch of people were fired from the United States State Department in top management, I decided to look into what the actual department's organization chart looked like. And how many of those people had not yet been nominated for replacement. And I tweeted this out. This is an org chart with Xs marked through. And what we had seen was... A complete eradication of the top management of the State Department of the United States of America. This, by the way, at the time that I tweeted it, was not super unusual. It takes some time, especially with some of these oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs assistant secretary... Okay, that's gonna take a little while to find somebody. But this chart holds as true today as it did in February when I created it. So this went viral, again, and I found myself in the newspaper again in Australia and Switzerland and Paris and the United States. And of course, here I am in Prague, trying to lay low. And then I'm kicking the hornet's nest of the State Department, which is not the most intelligent thing for me to have done at that time. But what it did was it really cemented this idea that tech activism, political activism, are not different things. They're the same thing. So I started doing a lot more political punditry in addition to my political activism. This kept getting me attention and enraging the "alt-right".

Emily: And basically just to wrap this up, there's nothing fun about a tweet that gets 20,000 retweets. If you're on Twitter and you ever get to that point, it's misery. Absolute misery. But I started getting dragged by these big names in right-wing media. And then, when the Google Memo came out, I tweeted this, which was, maybe, in retrospect, not the most intelligent thing for me to have said. But I was sticking to my lane. And I think that the best comment that I had was from Sydette. Who in support and solidarity said that she'd have the bail money ready for me.


EMILY: But this was awesome, because it gave me my very own Breitbart headline! So... Steve Bannon, who created so much problems for me, continued to create so much problems for me. And normally this is the point where I would have wrapped up this talk. And I would have talked about a few of the other things that I did along the way, including something that I did with data ethics and the Internet of Things. I gave an entire keynote talk here at OSBridge about it. But I don't have time to do that. Because my activism became local. I decided... All of this national scale stuff is great. But I want to bring it home to my community. What can I do to make my community better? Well, it became really convenient for me, because I am from Charlottesville, Virginia. And if you have paid attention to the news this summer, you know that Charlottesville has had... Some times. The first thing that happened was this. This was May 13th, 2017. In a park that is now known as Emancipation Park, Richard Spencer showed up with several dozen people with torches and rallied in front of a statue of Robert E Lee. This took our community by surprise. I was in Berlin when this happened. Hanging out at the Reichstag. I was like, "What bizarre universe is this?" So I said, "When I come home, I need to do something about this." So I found an activist community. And we had a march to oppose this type of intimidation.

EMILY: Charlottesville is a city with a deeply problematic racial legacy. We learned that two events were gonna happen this year. The first on July 8th, a KKK rally. A chapter of the KKK from North Carolina, about 50, came into our town, and we met them with almost 1500 people in a totally non-violate community-organized protest. And this went well. Until the police attacked us. When they threw tear gas at these people. People who I call my friends. Who were standing with their backs to the police. Acting nonviolently. Because the State is violence. And this is how the State acts. And we knew that this was because—that this was a preparation. That this was a practice run for what was coming later in the summer. Which was Unite the Right. Unite the Right was an event organized by somebody local to Charlottesville. Managed to get the attention of these names. Richard Spencer, Baked Alaska, Christopher Cantwell, national figures in the racist "alt-right" movement. Unite the Right is the most complex action that this country has seen in decades. To give you a scale, Portland has a lot of activism, a lot of actions that happen. We had six law enforcement agencies, not counting the FBI. The largest gathering of white nationalists in over 30 years, multiple independent armed militias, and the National Guard, being met by our small community of activists. This was the most complex, dangerous protest action that this country has seen in quite some time.

EMILY: Friday, August 11th, we saw this at the campus of the University of Virginia. And I hope that this is one of the most enduring images of our time. 400 Nazis came and they surrounded us at the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the UVA rotunda. I am in this picture, surrounded by these Nazis. They were chanting Nazi slogans. They were giving Nazi salutes. They were telling me that I'm not a real woman. That they couldn't wait to kill me. This is what it looked like when a man with a swastika pin was getting in my face, assaulting me, telling me that I'm not human. They would beat us with the torches they were carrying, dousing us in lighter fluid. A man pepper sprayed the group. This man you might recognize as Christopher Cantwell. You might recognize Christopher Cantwell because he was the subject of the Vice documentary. He was also memed as the crying Nazi. And by way of bringing this to a little bit of a positive note for a moment, I can confirm that the reason that he was crying is because I pressed charges against him for felony assault.

(loud applause)

EMILY: Friday, August 11th, was the worst thing I'd seen in my entire life, when I watched those people watching with their torches. Until the next day. When a man... When a Nazi, marching with a vanguard, drove his vehicle into a crowd of peaceful protestors. I was there. And I am in the Vice documentary, in the striped shirt. And my hand was on my hip, because I was carrying a weapon, because my activism, as anyone that does activism knows, makes you a target for death threats. For violence. And I had spent the last three months getting direct messages telling me that people would follow me home and murder me. Virginia is an open carry state, and I'm a gun owner. And I was carrying a gun. And when he attacked, I pulled that gun.

AUDIENCE MEMBER [loudly]: That's right. Do it.

EMILY: This is not easy stuff. This is a long fucking way from voting machines. August 11th... Or August 12th... Changed the world. If there's something positive to be taken from this, it is that in the time since, over two dozen Confederate statues have come down on public land. 70-plus people have left advisor positions to the president of the United States. We saw solidarity marches all around the world from Hamburg to Berlin to Bern to Australia to Portland to Oakland, Seattle. The next weekend, Boston rolled out 40,000 people to oppose 100. That's one person for every man, woman, enby, and child that lives in those City boundaries of Charlottesville. They came out in support. The "alt-right" movement ended on August 12th in Charlottesville, but it will come back unless we keep working. August 12th gave us the first positive media coverage that we had seen over antifascist movements in decades. This is Charlottesville's free speech wall. To see people openly writing "Thank you, antifa, for saving us" is astonishing. This is a dramatic political shift. And in personal news, New York Times... The week after... On their front page, above the fold, had a headline that Charlottesville hastened Steve Bannon's exit. I win, motherfucker.


EMILY: When I was in Prague, I went to the Women's March. There was a small gathering at the statue of King Wenceslas. And somebody there had a sign. The sign said this phrase in Czech. And it means "My words are my weapon". The purpose of activism, the thing that I set out to do when I looked into the voting machines the first time, was that central to whatever system of government we have, that we implement is the idea that every citizen's voice has power. That every citizen's words can be a weapon to speak truth to power. To oppose state violence. And the easiest way to do that is to ensure that their vote matters. That their vote is accounted for. So the organization that we did on August 12th is no different than me sitting in my living room the day after Thanksgiving. Reading dry, boring, astonishingly, indescribably boring technical reports. I didn't set out to do this. I didn't ever want to pull a gun on somebody and nearly kill somebody in a street. That wasn't what I came here to do. What I came here to do was to make a difference in my world. In my community. It just happened that they picked Charlottesville because they thought we would be soft. We weren't. And so I want to ask us to end briefly with a moment of silence. Not just for Heather Heyer, who was killed that day on that street. But for Sage Smith, the young Black transgender woman who in 2012 went missing from my street in Charlottesville and who the police did not commit resources to finding. To Noony Norwood, the young Black transgender woman who was murdered last year in an incident of domestic violence, and to Ebony Morgan, who was killed this year in Lynchburg. We are at war in Charlottesville and Central Virginia, and we need people to support and we need to speak truth to power not just against the State, but against all systems of oppression. So please join me in a moment of silence for them.

(sustained silence)

EMILY: When Black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up. Fight back. Thank you very much.

Emily Gorcenski

Selfie of Emily Gorcenski

Emily is a data scientist, a nonbinary trans woman, and a hockey player. They are passionate about better technological citizenship and believe in ethical, inclusive technology.