J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972.
J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972.

This post is meant as a primer on COINTELPRO. A large part of the course was spent on the surveillance of social movements, but surveillance in general and surveillance of social movements in particular cannot be properly understood without some background on COINTELPRO.


In 1971, a group of activists called the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. The group found over a thousand classified documents which they shared with the press. The story behind the break-in is recounted in this video, the book The Burglary and the film 1971 on Netflix. These documents revealed, for the first time, the existence of a covert FBI operation called COINTELPRO whose goal was to disrupt and neutralize domestic groups perceived as threats. A few years later, in 1974, the New York Times revealed the existence of a CIA report called Family Jewels. The report described many covert CIA operations, including behavior modification research, surveillance of domestic protestors, and assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba, among others.

The disclosures of COINTELPRO and of Family Jewels pushed the US Senate to establish a committee—informally called the Church committee—to investigate the abuses of the US Intelligence Community. The committee produced what is referred to as the Church report which describes the abuses of the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the IRS and certain parts of the Department of Justice and of the State Department.

Everything described in the rest of the post is straight from the Church report.

Overview. COINTELPRO was started in 1956 for the purpose of running counterintelligence operations against communist groups in the US. It lasted until 1971 and consisted of over 2000 approved actions. It’s important to understand that the nature of the program was counterintelligence and not criminal investigation which is what people typically associate with the FBI. The differences are important. Roughly speaking, the goal of a criminal investigation is to get a conviction, whereas the goal of a counterintelligence operation is to undermine and neutralize hostile agents.

As we will see, there were a lot of serious abuses with COINTELPRO, including actions that were unconstitutional and clearly immoral and illegal. But it’s important to also understand that the high-level goal of the program was to maintain the existing social order of the time. In fact, the Church report itself states,

The unexpressed major premise of much of COINTELPRO is that the Bureau has a role in maintaining the existing social order, and that its efforts should be aimed toward combatting those who threaten that order.

It’s important to keep in the mind the historical and social context of the time. The 1960’s were a time when many important social movements were born including the Women’s Liberation movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Gay Liberation movement and the Anti-War movement.

The Targets

During its 15 years of existence, COINTELPRO targeted four types of groups which it labeled as: Communist groups, White Hate groups, Black Nationalist groups and the New Left.

The Communist groups included the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

The White Hate groups included the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and the National States’ Right Party. For the most part, and unlike the other programs, the scope of White Hate program remained narrowly focused on its initial targets and, as the report states,

No legitimate right wing organizations were drawn into the program, in contrast with the earlier spread of the CPUSA and SWP programs to non members.

According to the FBI itself, this was also the most successful of all the programs.

The Black Nationalist program started with the monitoring of civil rights groups for communist influence but quickly expanded in scope. Its targets included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Revolutionary Action Movement, Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. The NAACP was investigated for more than 25 years on the suspicion that its leaders sympathized with communists; even after initial FBI reports stated that they didn’t. Individuals that were targeted included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, H. Rap Brown and Elijah Muhammad. The FBI also included “every Black Student union and similar group regardless of their past or present involvement in disorders.”

The New Left program was started after student protests at Columbia University. The FBI was never really able to define what it meant by New Left but, roughly speaking, it seemed to include anti-war groups, Women’s Liberation groups like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and, eventually, encompassed all student protest groups. For example, the report describes a student that was investigated because they carried an obscene sign in protest of their University’s censorship of the school newspaper. It also included the Inter-University Committee for Debate on Foreign Policy.

The Goals

According to the Church report, the actions the FBI undertook against its targets were classified into four goals: preventing speaking, preventing teaching, preventing writing and publishing and preventing meetings. Specific actions taken by the FBI included getting high school teachers and professors fired, preventing the distribution of books and newspapers, disrupting peaceful protests and even intervening to deny meeting spaces.

A high school teacher was investigated because they invited two poets that were involved with the draft resistance movement to attend their class. After this was discovered and the ACLU got involved, the FBI sent anonymous letters to local papers, the city’s Board of Education and to the school administration criticizing the ACLU’s involvement, urging them to focus on the teacher’s activities, and denouncing the teacher as a convicted draft dodger.

The FBI also targeted a university professor who was an anti-war demonstrator. Agents contacted a foundation known to contribute to the university and asked that they pressure the university to fire the professor. Though the university told the foundation that the professor’s contract would not be renewed it, in fact, was renewed so the FBI and the foundation continued to mount pressure. In another case, the FBI sent letters to politicians, the press and university administrators accusing a professor of giving aid and comfort to the enemy and suggesting that their goal was to “…bleed the United States white by prolonging the war in Vietnam and pave the way for a takeover by Russia”. Another professor was even targeted because they were the faculty advisor of a student group that was circulating a “pro-student” and anti-establishment pamphlet.

The FBI often targeted newspapers including college and underground papers. It contacted their landlords to try to get them evicted. They sent anonymous letters to politicians and advertisers complaining of college articles.

To prevent groups from meeting, the FBI contacted the owners of the meeting spaces to pressure them to refuse to rent the space. Agents tried to get the groups’ charters revoked. They leaked the time and place of closed meetings to the press. The FBI mounted disinformation campaigns against protestors by filling out forms with fake names and addresses so that organizers could not find housing for out of town protestors. Agents placed fake calls to confuse a transportation company that was hired to transport protestors and dropped fake leaflets on campus with different times and places for meetings.

The Tactics

To achieve its goals, the FBI used various techniques including propaganda, informants and anonymous letters and phone calls.

A common theme in COINTELPRO actions was to create distrust and animosity within groups and between groups. For example, the FBI sent an anonymous letter to the leader of a Chicago gang telling him that the Black Panthers had taken out a hit on him. As stated in the report the goal was to

…intensify the degree of animosity between the two groups and cause retaliatory action which could disrupt the Black Panther Party or lead to reprisals against its leadership.

In California, the FBI used anonymous letters to exacerbate conflicts between the Black Panthers and a group called the US Organization. Several deaths ensued and FBI reports said:

Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.

The FBI targeted a Black veteran who was on leave from a mental hospital and was upset with the SCLC. Again, according to FBI reports the goal of the operation was to:

…neutralize [him] by causing his commitment to a mental hospital, and to gain unfavorable publicity for the SCLC.

The FBI also targeted the leaders of various groups, especially of the Black Panther Party. A series of anonymous letters were sent to create a rift between Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. The FBI even sent an anonymous letter to Stokely Carmichael’s mother claiming members of the Party planned to kill him.

Another tactic was the snitch jacket, where a target would be falsely labeled as an informant. In one instance, the FBI had a police officer pick up two anti-war protestors under false pretense and arranged for someone to radio the officer to say that the target—a third anti-way protestor—had called and wanted the officer to call her back. In another example, five members of the Black Panther Party were arrested. All but one were released and the rumor was spread that the fifth member was released last because they had cooperated.

A third tactic was to interfere in a target’s personal life. For example, the FBI targeted a woman that was associated with WILPF as well as two groups labeled as New Left and Black Nationalist. Agents sent anonymous letters to her husband accusing her of infidelity. Four months after the letter was sent, the couple had separated.

Letters were sent to employers of targets to get them fired. A priest that allowed the Black Panther Party to use his church for its breakfast program was transferred after an anonymous letter and anonymous phone calls were made to his bishop. A television commentator that had expressed sympathy for a “Black Nationalist” leader was transferred after his station received anonymous letters from the FBI.

After a Black university student was arrested in a protest, the FBI sent anonymous letters to the local prosecutor and radio to reveal that her adoptive father was a communist. The goal was to “aid the prosecutor in his case against the student”.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The FBI targeted a lot of people under COINTELPRO but the intensity of its actions against Martin Luther King Jr. was exceptional. It would take too long to properly describe the FBI’s actions against Dr. King but, as the Church report, states

The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness.

Dr. King was a target of the FBI from 1963 until his death in 1968 and, in fact, even after. His home was tapped from 1963 to 1965 and the headquarters of the SCLC for even longer. The FBI tapped his hotel rooms in the hope of gathering evidence of adultery.

FBI agents flew to the Vatican to convince the Pope to cancel a meeting with Dr. King. When he won the Nobel Peace prize, the FBI mounted a campaign to undermine him with heads of states and ambassadors. Letters with his forged signature were sent to donors suggesting that the SCLC was being investigated by the IRS.

The FBI even sent Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, purported recordings of his adultery with a letter suggesting he kill himself if he did not want the recording to be released.

Even after his death, the FBI lobbied Congress to fight against the establishment of Martin Luther King day.


COINTELPRO was officially terminated in 1971. The Church report had a big impact on how intelligence and counterintelligence is conducted in the US. Among other things, it lead to the ban of political assassinations and to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Even though COINTELPRO was terminated, the FBI continues to surveil domestic groups, including activists.

The Moral Character of Scientific Work

Announcement of the Einstein-Russel manifesto.
Announcement of the Einstein-Russel manifesto.

The first paper we covered was Phil Rogaway’s The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work. The paper centers around the moral and ethical responsibilities of cryptographers but its themes are relevant and applicable to computer science as a whole. This was a useful paper for us to discuss early in the course so that we could cover important notions for the rest of the course.


The paper is divided into four parts:

  1. Social responsibility of scientists & engineers: is a broad discussion about the ethical responsibilities of scientists;
  2. Political character of cryptographic work: discusses the inherent political nature of cryptography and the apolitical culture of part of the academic cryptography community;
  3. The dystopian world of pervasive surveillance: describes two opposing framings of mass surveillance;
  4. Creating a more just and useful field: describes a set of problems that Rogaway believes cryptographers should work on.

Social responsibility of scientists & engineers. In this section, Rogaway discusses the post World War II scientific “ethic of responsibility”. He describes the Russell-Einstein manifesto from 1955 which called for nuclear disarmament and the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs which played an important role in disarmament and diplomacy. He then argues that technical work itself can be political and that, in response, scientists can engage in politics in one of two ways. The first is via implicit politics, where a scientist affects politics as a byproduct of their technical work. The second is via overt politics where a scientist affects politics through activism.

Rogaway then describes three historical events that shaped scientists’ ethics of responsibility: the experience of physicists after the invention of nuclear weapons; the Nuremberg trials which established the idea that following orders does not absolve one from moral responsibility; and the rise of the environmental movement. According to Rogaway, these events lead to a sort of “golden era” of scientific responsibility where ethics and social concerns were the norm in scientific work.

Yet, he points out, in recent decades the ethics of responsibility in science has eroded considerably. He describes several instances of scientists and other academics that choose to explicitly take amoral and apolitical stands. This is summarized in the following quote from Stanley Fisch:

…don’t confuse your academic obligations with the obligation to save the world; that’s not your job as an academic.

Rogaway speculates as to what caused this decline and believes that it is, in part, due to the rise of technological optimism. Technological optimism is the idea that technology is inherently positive and that technological innovation will solve most of humanity’s problems. Rogaway’s argument is, roughly speaking, that technological optimists equate technology with progress and this eliminates the need to think critically about one’s work. In other words, since the act of creating technology is inherently good why should we, as technology builders, even worry about the consequences of our work? A contrary perspective is that of technological pessimists who believe that technology does not lead to progress and point to weapons of mass destruction and the environmental crisis as one of many examples of technology’s negative impact. Somewhere in the middle are technological contextualists who acknowledge technology’s negative impacts but believe it can be directed and harnessed towards positive outcomes.

Rogaway ends this section with a reminder of scientist’s ethical responsibilities. The first is that one’s role is not simply to “do no harm” but to actively pursue social good. The second is that the responsibilities of a scientist extend beyond herself all the way to her community, i.e., as a scientist you are morally responsible for the impact of your scientific community.

The political character of cryptographic work. Here, Rogaway argues that cryptography is inherently political but that its political nature has been erased in part of the academic cryptography community. He recalls that, in the early days of modern cryptography (late 70’s and early 80’s), cryptography research was often motivated by political questions. He then describes how academic cryptography eventually fragmented into two communities represented, roughly speaking, by the IACR community (CRYPTO, Eurocrypt, Asiacrypt and TCC) and the PETS community. Rogaway illustrates his point using two papers that were published around the same time: Chaum’s Untraceable electronic mail, return addresses, and digital pseudonyms [Chaum81], which is highly influential at PETS; and Goldwasser and Micali’s Probabilistic Encryption [GM82], which is highly influential in IACR conferences. Rogaway then states

Papers citing [GM82] frame problems scientifically. Authors claim to solve important technical questions. The tone is assertive, with hints of technological optimism. In marked contrast, papers citing [Chaum81] frame problems socio-politically. Authors speak about some social problem or need. The tone is reserved and explicitly contextualist views are routine.

He then discusses another cryptographic community: the cypherpunks whose principles can be roughly articulated as the pursuit of individual privacy against governments and corporations through the use of open and freely available cryptography. The section ends with a survey of various cryptographic primitives that Rogaway argues embed political and sometimes even authoritarian principles.

The dystopian world of pervasive surveillance. In this section, Rogaway presents two different framings of mass surveillance: one from law enforcement which frames privacy as a personal good and (national) security as a collective good; and one from surveillance studies which frames both privacy and security as collective goods. The Law Enforcement argument is that the widespread deployment of encryption is increasing personal privacy at the cost of national security. Law enforcement agencies are “going dark” due to encryption and their ability to protect the nation is rapidly deteriorating. The privacy and surveillance studies argument, on the other hand, is that Law Enforcement has access to an unprecedented amount of information about people and that that is certainly enough for it to accomplish its mission. Trying to stop the deployment of encryption and other cryptographic technologies not only weakens people’s individual privacy but weakens the social goods that privacy enables like dissent and social progress.

Creating a more just and useful field. In the final section, Rogaway describes technical problems cryptographers should work on if they want to help build a better field. This discussion is very crypto-centric so we won’t summarize it here but only mention that he advocates for cryptographers to expand the problems they work on to include surveillance-motivated research. Rogaway also discusses funding, claiming that most of the funding for cryptography research (in the U.S.) comes from the Department of Defense (DoD) and advocates that academics “think twice, and then again, about accepting military funding”.

Our Discussion

We agreed with many of Rogaway’s points. In particular, with the pervasiveness of technological optimism in our field and decline of ethical responsibility in science.

Ethical responsibility. Most of us agreed that scientists should be bound by the ethics of responsibility that Rogaway summarizes. One of us, however, did not agree and believed that scientists and engineers should focus on creating technology and not on technology’s social implications, which should be left to others. Though this was a minority view, we also understand that Brown is perhaps not completely representative of the entire political spectrum and that this perspective is surely more common in the wider computer science community.

Another issue we discussed was that the scientists and communities that shaped the post-war ethic of responsibility were overwhelmingly white and male. Many of us felt that this was important because people’s values and and moral code are shaped by their background and experiences. And without diverse perspectives, the range and scope of possible ethical codes that were considered at the time were likely very narrow.

The decline of ethical responsibility. We discussed why ethical responsibility in science declined. Rogaway’s hypothesis is that it is, in part, linked to an increase in individualism and in technological optimism. There is, however, another perhaps more cynical hypothesis: maybe scientists have never been that ethically engaged in the first place. The historical events that lead to the post-war golden era of responsibility were atypical. The use of nuclear weapons and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany were two of the worst atrocities committed in human history. So it is not surprising that scientists had to reconcile with these events and respond in a way that changed their view of moral responsibility.

But is this really the standard to which scientists and engineers should be held today? It should not take genocide and the creation of new weapons of mass destruction to galvanize our community to develop and adhere to ethical standards. These atrocities were highly visible and hard to ignore. But the everyday minutiae of working on morally gray problems is easier to overlook. And if we don’t provide everyday scientists and engineers the tools and frameworks to evaluate the ethics and social impact of their own work, we will continue to leave morality aside in the pursuit of academic and entrepreneurial success.

With this in mind, is it then surprising that the ethos of responsibility did not survive? It was created as a reaction to extreme events but it did not fundamentally change how science is conducted or how students in STEM are educated.

A new ethics of responsibility. We also talked about whether today’s ethic of responsibility should still be founded on the post-war ethics? Should it ask for more? If so what? Many of our students were born in the 2000’s and grew up in a world that is markedly different from Einstein and Russel’s. This also related to our discussion about the lack of diversity in post-war science. So the question was: given the current state of the world and a (slightly?) more diverse scientific community, what should today’s ethic of responsibility look like?

Fragmentation of academic cryptography. Those of us that worked in cryptography agreed with Rogaway’s description of our field and of the apolitical culture of the IACR community. Nobody felt this was particularly controversial; it is obvious to anyone who reads the proceedings and attends the conferences.

Since this was obvious, our conversation focused more on why this might be the case. One of Rogaway’s observations is that the IACR community is technologically optimist whereas the PETS community is technologically contextualist. Another reason, however, might be because the cryptography community lacks diversity; both demographic diversity and intellectual diversity. In fact, we talked about who exactly becomes a cryptographer? What experiences do they bring to the table? How are they trained? Many (if not most) people in this community come from a math and theoretical computer science background. Most have been educated and trained at one of a handful of institutions. Most of the community’s academic lineage can even be traced back to a handful of people.

We agreed with Rogaway’s call for the community to expand the scope of problems it works on. But we also wanted the community to be more intentional about diversifying itself. A scientist’ s choice of problems is shaped by who they are. Including people of different backgrounds would expand the scope of research and provide wider perspectives. IACR sponsors non-US conferences like Eurocrypt, Asiacrypt and Africacrypt but anyone familiar with these venues knows that they are not designed to promote a local view of cryptographic research; i.e., the same problems studied at CRYPTO are studied at Asiacrypt and at Africacrypt. Can we really have a conversation about the moral character of cryptographic work without expanding who has access to which platforms or addressing how we gate-keep as a community?

Funding. For context, our discussions occurred against the backdrop of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and Ronan Farrow’s story about the MIT Media Lab’ s financial relationship with Epstein. So we spent a lot of time discussing funding. Wile Rogaway’s funding critique centered around individual academics’ choice of taking DoD money, ours centered around the institutions in which these academics worked, i.e., Universities. Asking individual faculty to be circumspect about their funding is great but if the institutions they work for: (1) do not fund their research; but (2) evaluate and promote them based on their research; and (3) pressure them to obtain funding so that they can pay their summer salaries and fund their PhD students; then these institutions need to shoulder some of the responsibility. To be clear, none of us felt that apportioning blame to Universities absolved faculty from their decisions and certainly not Joi Ito and the Media Lab. But we did feel like any conversation about funding needs to include a broader discussion about how academic research is funded and the incentives that creates for individual faculty.

Editorial note on algorithmic fairness. Looking back on this discussion, the issues surrounding the fragmentation of the cryptography community seem particularly relevant to what is happening in the field of algorithmic fairness. The first conference on the subject, FaccT, advocates for interdisciplinary work that is rooted in and informed by the social context surrounding fairness, accountability and transparency. From the FaccT webpage:

Research challenges are not limited to technological solutions regarding potential bias, but include the question of whether decisions should be outsourced to data- and code-driven computing systems. We particularly seek to evaluate technical solutions with respect to existing problems, reflecting upon their benefits and risks; to address pivotal questions about economic incentive structures, perverse implications, distribution of power, and redistribution of welfare; and to ground research on fairness, accountability, and transparency in existing legal requirements.

On the other hand, the more recent Foundations of Responsible Computing (FORC) emphasises the mathematical, algorithmic, statistical and economics aspects of responsible computing. From the FORC website:

The Symposium on Foundations of Responsible Computing (FORC) is a forum for mathematical research in computation and society writ large. The Symposium aims to catalyze the formation of a community supportive of the application of theoretical computer science, statistics, economics and other relevant analytical fields to problems of pressing and anticipated societal concern.

Just as cryptography is inherently political, algorithmic fairness is inherently social and political so it will be interesting to see how this community chooses to evolve.

Intro & Overview

Brown CS 2950v course advertisement.
Brown CS 2950v course advertisement.

In Fall 2019, I taught a course called Crypto for Social Good. I didn’t like the name but I had to make a quick decision and that was the best I could come up with at the time. I had a sense of the topics I wanted to cover but I didn’t have a way to capture the essence of the course.

In fact, on the first day of class I told my students:

I’m not exactly sure what this course is about, but we’re going to figure it out.

And we did. What we found is that the course was about the impact of computer science and technology on marginalized groups. The course had a privacy and surveillance bias to it because that’s what I work on, but we had students from a variety of CS backgrounds including AI/ML, robotics and systems so our discussions ended up being somewhat broader (though we unfortunately did not have any students from the social sciences).

My motivation for creating the course was frustration. I have studied computer science for almost 25 years. I have worked on cryptography for over 15 years. I worked at Microsoft Research for 8 years. I spent a year and half on a National Academy of Sciences committee studying the impact of encryption on law enforcement and national security. I went all the way from being a confused undergraduate computer science major to an Associate Professor and, until very recently, I never attended a lecture or had a conversation with other computer scientists about the specific impact that technology has on marginalized groups.

Of course, teaching and research on this subject did exist outside of CS but my point is that I never encountered any computer science work that focused on the experiences of marginalized people. This leads me to believe that, as a field, we don’t really care. At least not in a meaningful way. We write diversity and inclusion statements but we don’t do research or build technologies that address the problems of marginalized communities.

So this is why I created the course. But what is this blog about? During our time together, my students and I read, analyzed and discussed many reports and articles and we thought a lot about computer science’s role (and sometimes absence) in various social problems. We thought about the problems that different communities were facing and whether technology-based solutions even made sense (often they didn’t!). In some cases, we also sketched new technologies that could potentially impact these communities in a positive way. None of these discussions were authoritative. We didn’t come up with any definitive answers; but we weren’t trying to. Our goal was to educate ourselves and reflect. To imagine what computer science would look like if the interests of marginalized people were taken seriously by the field.

I think the results of our work are important and, as far as I know, somewhat unique so this blog will serve as a way to communicate them to those who are interested. I will post summaries and analyses of our readings and, eventually, the research that came out of that.

Posts related to class discussions will be authored as a group named 2950v-XX, where XX will be the course year. I decided on group authorship to protect the students’ privacy and to avoid them being targeted.

For Fall 2020, I plan on broadening the class beyond crypto and on changing the name to “Algorithms for the People”. I feel that it better captures what the course was always about; even if I didn’t realize it at first.