Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods’ Unravels the Whitewashing of American History

If America was a person, it’d be a narcissist. Psychology Today characterizes narcissistic personality disorder as “…a grandiose sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy for others, a need for excessive admiration, and the belief that one is unique and deserving of special treatment.” That diagnosis would explain why despite the many public displays of affection required to be considered “proud” Americans—like voting, jury duty, and serving in the military—the country has not protected everyone. This is the land where burning the flag can send you to jail, but 99 percent of killings by police officers since 2013 have resulted in no convictions.

To be a Black American is to be constantly warring with two identities. You are on stolen land run by a government whose constitution once described your humanity as being worth just three-fifths that of a white person. Spike Lee’s latest film, Da 5 Bloods, finds four Vietnam War veterans wrestling with the irony of Black patriotism. As shown in the recent Black Lives Matter uprising, Black Americans are still fighting for freedom in a country synonymous with our bondage.

Da 5 Bloods follows the story of a group of Black men who return to Vietnam more than 50 years after serving in the war together. The quartet sets out to find the remains of their fallen leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) along with $17 million worth of gold they buried during combat. Being back in Vietnam reopens emotional wounds for some of the vets, like Paul (Delroy Lindo), who is “tired of not getting [his].” Returning to Vietnam for the gold is about more than just finding lost treasure; it is a form of reparations, and a chance to finally be paid for their contributions to American history.

These men are the bridge between past and present, and Lee uses flashbacks to the war to show that although decades have passed, not much has changed. When the group first finds the gold during battle, it is Norm who decides they deserve it more than anyone else. “We were the very first people that died for this red, white, and blue,” he says, noting the death of Crispus Attucks, a Black man who was the first soldier killed in the American Revolution. “We been dying for this country from the very get, hoping one day they’d give us our rightful place… I say, the USA owe us. We built this bitch!”

It’s clear that Paul carries this speech with him over the years, and ultimately, it informs his politics. Early on, he reveals himself as a Trump supporter, and wears a Make America Great Again hat that practically serves as another character for most of the film. Lee’s decision to outfit Paul with Trumpian rhetoric isn’t hyperbolic, but a direct call-out to a tactic Trump used to appeal to Black voters in the 2016 election. “If you keep voting for the same people, you will keep getting exactly the same result,” Trump said.

Trump’s ambiguous remarks fail to address that, historically, America was designed to make sure Black people kept getting “the same result.” Slavery, segregation, housing discrimination, and medical racism are just a handful of systems that have enabled and upheld white supremacy. Malcolm X, who believed in the rights of Black people to defend themselves, was assassinated, and even Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of nonviolence was met with contempt. The message from their deaths, even after the Civil Rights movement, was clear: The price for being vocal about ending white supremacy often meant sacrificing your life.

Fighting a war for America didn’t make the “soul brothers” any more American, and Lee brilliantly shows that when the soldiers receive news from radio personality Hanoi Hannah that King was assassinated. “Your soul sisters and soul brothers are enraged in over 122 cities,” she says. “They kill them while you fight against us, so far away from where you are needed.” The film cites that despite making up only 11 percent of the American population, Black soldiers comprised around 32 percent of the US military during the Vietnam War. “Black GI, is it fair to serve more than the white Americans who sent you here?” Hannah asks on her show.

One particularly poignant scene portrays a conversation in French between Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a woman who works for an organization that detonates landmines and bombs, and Desroche (Jean Reno) an unsurprising antagonist who wants the gold for himself. “These men are a part of our history in Vietnam, so this belongs to them,” Hedy says. “We need to consider the sacrifice they made.” Desroche, however, does not see it that way. “We have all sacrificed,” he says. “Their Blackness does not make their sacrifice any greater.” That statement might as well have been written as “all lives matter.”

Da 5 Bloods helps undo the whitewashing of American history by commemorating the Black soldiers of the Vietnam War as heroes fighting a battle that was rigged from the start. The film’s iconography feels eerily relevant in 2020, as the soldiers kneel before Norm’s remains, throw up triumphant Black power fists, and give robust donations to the Black Lives Matter organization. By the end, it feels like Black Americans are all veterans of some kind of war.

The concept of Black patriotism is probably best expressed in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Our ability to challenge America and its systems is because of our love, and therefore an extension of our patriotism. Only time will tell if the feeling is mutual.

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.

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How to Find an Incarcerated LGBTQ Pen Pal—and Why You Should

Queers Built This is a project about queer inventiveness and DIY culture then, now, and tomorrow.

David Booth knows a letter can change a life. As someone who spent six months in prison at the age of 19, it would have changed Booth’s.

The 34-year-old, who uses xe/xem pronouns, was incarcerated in Virginia just three weeks after the death of xyr parents. Booth recalled totally shutting down during that time and becoming a “shell of a person.” While in prison, xe could barely eat or sleep and would just go through the motions of every day. Xe compared the experience to living like a zombie.

“I was in this space of grieving on my own while I was stuck inside,” Booth said. “I didn’t even know how to exist as a human because I was so torn up with grief.”

Booth’s traumatic experience was worsened by the fact that xe had few people on the outside to call or write to when things got too difficult to bear alone. Now, Booth is the deputy director for the Omaha, Nebraska-based prison abolitionist organization Black and Pink, and part of xyr job is to help alleviate that struggle for currently incarcerated LGBTQ people. Booth helps oversee the pen pal program, through which volunteers sign up to write letters and provide support to queer and trans people in prison.

Black and Pink estimates that hundreds of the organization’s incarcerated members are enrolled as pen pals. And they are always looking for more people who are interested in writing to them. Here’s how to get involved.

Why Does an LGBTQ Pen Pal Program Exist?

Booth said the pen pal program is critical for individuals who are incarcerated because it “reminds people of their inherent value” in a system that can be especially dehumanizing when you’re LGBTQ. According to the National Center for Trans Equality, trans women are more than twice as likely as the average person to have spent time behind bars, and 10 times more likely to have been sexually assaulted in jail or prison.

The risks of incarceration are even more extreme for transgender people of color. According to NCTE, an estimated 47 percent of Black trans women have been placed in a lockup facility at some point in their lives. Many are housed in men’s prisons where they face extreme levels of harassment and violence from other inmates, as well as guards at the facility. Ashley Diamond, who was incarcerated for three years on a nonviolent offense, filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections after she was raped on seven different occasions.

According to Black and Pink, forming pen pal relationships with individuals on the outside is a means of harm reduction because it signals to guards and other prisoners that there are people paying attention to an inmate’s welfare. Booth said it’s also common for pen pals to send a “good portion of their paycheck” to help people in prison afford items from commissary, which can include everything from health and hygiene products to cosmetics.

How Does Pen-Palling Relate to the Greater Goals of Prison Abolition?

The end goal of the pen pal program is focused on transformative justice, a model that advocates for looking past criminal punishment as a solution and examining the root causes of why an individual might have ended up incarcerated. Booth said that a transformative justice model seeks to ask: “What are the social institutions—like racism, homophobia, or transphobia—that allow that harm to happen in the first place? And what can we do to make sure that harm doesn’t happen again?”

“When you look at transformative justice, it’s about tearing down social institutions that take away people’s equitable chance of living,” xe said. “The system itself is inherently violent, and we don’t believe you can solve harm by perpetuating more harm.”

As an organization that ultimately advocates for the abolition of prisons, Black and Pink believes the connections forged in the pen pal program can help demolish the barriers that allow the prison-industrial complex to continue to exist. The idea is that when individuals on the outside begin seeing the people they correspond with as deserving of dignity, they will begin to understand that no individual should be imprisoned.

“It’s just about realizing that we’re all in it together,” Booth said. “That connection between people is what reminds us that we can be supportive, we can be affirming, and we don’t need the system to try and change that for us.”

But Booth knows that the pen pal program is also simply about being there for others. Nearly every single day, Black and Pink hears from people who say that receiving weekly or monthly letters has saved their lives by giving them the resources they need to survive under inhumane conditions.

The experience of prison was so traumatizing that the majority of Booth’s memories from between the ages of 19 and 26 “are totally gone,” xe said. “I barely have anything left from that time period.” For people who are facing that same situation, Booth hopes the pen pal program helps to send an important message: “We see you, we hear you, and we want to provide a little bit of light.”

OK, So How Do I Become a Pen Pal?

Signing up for the program is very simple. Those interested in becoming a pen pal should visit Black and Pink’s website and read the guidelines for participants in the program. While there are no specific requirements, Black and Pink asks individuals to assess whether they have the capacity to continue a correspondence, rather than just sending a single letter. They also suggest that individuals ask themselves whether they are prepared to hear about the abuses of the prison-industrial complex and whether they have support systems in their own lives to help unpack the stories they might hear. Another thing for potential pen pals to consider: whether they are comfortable sharing personal information, such as their home address, with a stranger.

“There is… extra stigma around sharing information with incarcerated people,” the organization states on its website. “In general, we encourage people to use their home address and to take time to question where these anxieties are coming from. … We encourage everyone to do what feels right and best for themselves while at the same time looking deeper at what is causing fear and work on that as we build our movement towards abolition.”

Individuals are then directed to choose an individual they’d like to correspond with from a spreadsheet of possible pen pals and fill out an application form.

What Do I Write in My First Letter?

Black and Pink advises pen pals to communicate up front about how often they are able to write, as incarcerated people often come to depend on the correspondences for emotional and psychological support. Because prison is not a gender-affirming environment, recipients might not be using their preferred names, so Pen pals should ask what name and pronoun the individual would prefer to use in their letters as well as whether they are comfortable with discussing their LGBTQ identity openly. Prison officials often read letters that inmates receive, meaning that details regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity may be sensitive for someone who isn’t out at their facility.

Many people in prison also sign up for the pen pal program seeking companionship or an intimate relationship. While Black and Pink does not discourage pen pals from writing letters that are sexual in nature, the organization stresses that it’s important to disclose what type of relationship a pen pal is seeking early on, whether that’s strictly platonic or romantic.

Booth also suggests for pen pals to “invite curiosity, not only for yourself but for those who are experiencing incarceration.”

“It’s traumatic and violent inside those walls,” xe said. “Lean into compassion and check your privilege. Understand that you have so much more freedoms and access than people inside do. Act with loving kindness with your pen pal and make sure you know why you are writing them. That helps both of you.”


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After 20 Years of Begging, Nintendo Finally Announced ‘New Pokémon Snap’

After 20 years of begging from fans, a sequel to 1999’s Pokémon Snap is coming to the Switch.

Nintendo announced during a 10 minute “Pokémon Direct” alongside the toothbrushing app Pokémon Smile and puzzle game Pokémon Café Mix.

As soon as the Switch came out, I knew that I wanted to play Pokémon Snap on it. Pokémon Snap is a nice game where you do nice things. You observe Pokémon in various environments and take pictures of them. You were scored on the Pokémon’s size, pose, and rarity, and occasionally you’d come across cute variations, like a surfing Pikachu, that were worth more points. GIven that the Switch can be played in handheld mode, it already mimics the way that most people take pictures on their smartphones. On the Nintendo 64, I remember this game feeling a little unwieldy with that console’s absurd, three pronged controller. Then again, I was nine.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that there would be new Pokémon in a Pokémon Snap game, but seeing a Scorbunny and Primarina made me squeal. I’m used to seeing most of these monsters in low resolution 3D models; here, even the enormous Wailord is rendered in his full size glory.

Other than the new games, this morning Nintendo made a few announcements about Pokémon Go, and released a little bit of new information on the Pokémon Sword and Shield expansion. The first part, The Isle of Armor, comes out today.

There’s no release date for New Pokémon Snap yet, so I will sit here patiently awaiting a chance to take pictures of Pokémon. Hopefully I can get a pic of surfing Pikachu again.

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Jello Biafra • High Times

Jello Biafra has been injecting his brand of sardonic political and social criticism into American culture since the late ’70s. Biafra grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and moved to California in 1977, where he formed the legendary punk band the Dead Kennedys, started the Alternative Tentacles record label and ran for mayor of San Francisco. The DKs were at the epicenter of the ’80s hardcore-punk scene, one of the few places of outrageous counterculture in the Reagan era, producing punk classics like “Holiday in Cambodia,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” and “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

In 1986, Biafra was busted for “distributing harmful matter to minors,” a poster by painter H.R. Giger included with the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist album. He beat the rap, but the band broke up before the trial. He continued to play music, collaborating with Mojo Nixon, the Vancouver punk band D.O.A. and with former Ministry lead singer Al Jourgenson in Lard. In the ’90s. Biafra primarily concentrated on spoken-word performances collected on five albums, including 1991’s I Blow Minds for a Living (featuring “Grow More Pot”) and If Evolution Is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Evolve. AK Press published a book of his speeches, Burning Down the Magic Kingdom. Toby Rogers and Steven Wishnia spoke to Biafra in San Francisco for an interview published in the October, 1999 issue of High Times. In celebration of Jello Biafra’s birthday on June 17, we’re republishing it below.

High Times: When did you start smoking pot?

Jello Biafra: I started later than most people I knew, which is good because by the time I got into it, I had just graduated from high school, so my hard-core stoner period didn’t screw up my education.

What bands were you listening to at the time?

I’ve always liked really extreme, heavy, wild rock ’n’ roll. I started listening to music when I was a little kid, on the tail end of Beatlemania, and quickly gravitated to harder stuff like the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Music Machine. At that point the local radio stations played the local bands, and being in Colorado, I got to hear the Moonrakers and the Monocles as well.

When did you first get into punk?

As soon as it happened. By the time I got to high school I discovered the used-record store, so I could quickly get a lot more albums for a lot less money, especially when this one store near the school threw out everything they thought they couldn’t sell into a free box each day. Being fed up with stupid mellow FM and AM radio, I just cleaned out the free box every single day for three years. I got all the Doors albums in six weeks, and stuff nobody would even touch back then, like the 13th Floor Elevators, the Nazz and the Seeds. And in the quarter bin was the MC5. The local music critic in Denver had blasted Black Sabbath, saying they were almost as bad as the MC5. So I immediately knew I better check those guys out.

I got really into the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams and then Raw Power by the Stooges right when a lot of my friends ditched Black Sabbath for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, jazz-fusion and Yes. Later, in my pothead phase, I did open up more to psychedelic music and prog-rock, but I’ve always gravitated toward stuff that was darker and more intense. For instance, I was pretty deeply into Hawkwind even before I smoked a lot of pot.

What do you mean when you say you “smoked a lot of pot”? You’ve said you hate “the whole low-energy stoner vibe.”

For a while I would probably light up a joint first thing when I got up, and then continue from there. But after a few years, I stopped smoking, because every time I did I just got depressed and afraid of everything. I began looking at everything as, “Wow, that movie would have been really great if I’d seen it stoned!” It’s important to experiment with drugs and learn what you can from them and then move on, instead of letting it become a security blanket. I’m sure glad my addictive phase was with a relatively harmless drug like marijuana.

You mentioned the MCS as an influence. Would you say the Dead Kennedys were as radical as the MC5, maybe even more?

In some ways yes, in some ways no. We never went straight up against the Chicago police. Thus, I still have teeth left.

But were the MC5 similar to what you were looking for as a vision for the Dead Kennedys?

They certainly played its role. I hadn’t really written any lyrics before the band started. I figured if I had to write the lyrics, they better be good ones. So I tried to explore some of the same dark territory and horror that Alice Cooper did with theater and Iggy Pop did from a personal point of view, but I wanted to make it politically militant like the MC5.

How do you relate to the ’60s counterculture?

There was so much cool music, the loosening of sexual puritanism, the dawn of the environmental movement, people rising up and stopping the Vietnam War and driving Richard Nixon back into the hole from which he came. But by the time I got out of high school all that changed, and the ’70s were in full swing. We weren’t dazed and confused, we were dazed and disgusted. Rock ’n’ roll had been reduced to a spectator sport. Major labels were pushing bogus mellow garbage like jazz-fusion and the Eagles. I hated that shit. All of that made punk necessary. When I came out to San Francisco and saw these fantastic bands, like the Avengers, the Screamers, Negative Trend, the Sleepers, the Dils, Crime, the Nuns and the Mutants all falling by the wayside before they could make albums, I was heartbroken. I figured that if I ever had the financial resources to rectify that, I would start a label for people who wanted to operate outside the mainstream entertainment industry and be as no-bullshit and uncompromising as they wanted.

In the ’80s, labels like Alternative Tentacles were about creating a self-sufficient cultural underground. But once it got big enough so that bands could make a living, the major labels came in and sucked everything up.

That’s too simplistic. The majors didn’t come in ’til years later. The only reason they came in at all was because there was a whole new generation of suburban white kids listening to political rap music. The clowns at the major labels suddenly realized that these kids weren’t interested in Eric Clapton and Bob Seger. So they caved in and signed these other bands, even if they couldn’t stand them. Sonic Youth and Nirvana were a few of the first ones.

Do you think Geffen Records thought Nirvana would get so big?

I don’t think they expected them to do as well as they did, but once Nirvana took off, it was natural corporate-predator behavior to isolate Kurt Cobain as a rock-star zoo animal and drive him to an early grave and make money off his death. So I welcome the current downsizing at major labels. If all they are interested in is Alanis Hootiefish and Shania Twain, fine. Let the independents put out the good stuff, just like we did before Nirvana and Green Day took off.

It’s quite possible now for an artist to make a decent living staying away from the commercial entertainment industry. The more you dip into the commercial entertainment industry, the less money you make, unless you are mega-huge. Otherwise, there is so much money being sucked away by managers, lawyers, charges for promotion. Bands make less money at labels than if they do it themselves and cut out the middlemen.

Do you have any reflections on your censorship case?

What’s most telling now about the whole Frankenchrist censorship fiasco that Tipper Gore played such a key role in is that the prosecutor in the case apologized a couple of years ago in the Washington Post. He said the whole thing was a comedy of errors, he regretted it, they had no idea my lyrics were socially relevant—even though they kept me under surveillance before they raided my house—and that his son has all my albums and plays them constantly to torment his father. I want to shove that in the face of every other prima donna prosecutor who attacks musicians to try and get their name in the paper.

Speaking of which, people are pointing the finger at Hollywood, Marilyn Manson and video games for the mass killings in Littleton. Who do you think is to blame?

I would say multinational corporations who are hell-bent on destroying America’s soul, and above all the way they make organized sports and firearms the religious totems of our society. People blamed Marilyn Manson when they should be looking at the schools and possibly the parents. One of those kids was murdered because he was black. Marilyn Manson didn’t do that. Bigotry is taught in the home, and the way jocks are deified in the public schools needs to be stopped. As far as I’m concerned, wanting to kill the bullies and blow up the school is a normal rite of passage of growing up in America. What made these kids go over the line and actually do it? Easy availability of firearms. Pure and simple.

If Marilyn Manson really had that much influence over those guys, why didn’t they wait three more days, go see him live in Denver and then go kill the jocks? I mean, how many millions of people play Doom and don’t go shoot up their school? The cause is somewhere else.

Could you talk about the Drug War and the prison-industrial complex? Sixty percent of federal prisoners are drug offenders. And you mention on your new CD that corporations are using prisoners as slave labor.

The Drug War is ethnic cleansing, American-style. Instead of rounding up the Jews, we’re rounding up the blacks. It is mostly people of color who are getting locked up on drug charges. I’m sure you well know the penalty for crack possession is 100 times more severe than possession of powder cocaine. We’re putting more and more people in jail for smaller and smaller offenses. The prison-industrial complex is the fastest growing sector of the American economy. What does that say about our so-called family values, when a prison guard makes twice as much as a schoolteacher?

And they’re spending that money hiring lobbyists to pressure legislators and Congresspeople to enact harsher drug laws and longer sentencing laws, and financing state ballot initiatives to con voters into passing “three strikes and you’re out” laws, thinking they are putting child-murderers in jail. In Oregon, they’re charging prisoners $6,000 a year rent for their cells and $1.50 a meal so they can work as slaves for Microsoft and Starbucks. Even Victoria’s Secret is in on this now.

A lot of politicians have smoked pot, but they usually dismiss it as a “youthful indiscretion” and support the Drug War.

That’s typical hypocrisy of vicious yuppie fascists. It’s going to be an interesting election in that sense, because both Al and Tipper Gore admitted smoking pot. There’s going to be no way of disqualifying people from public office. Hell, even Newt Gingrich admitted smoking pot.

What do you think of Jesse Ventura?

He stopped being funny already. I’m over him, although I do think that more professional wrestlers should run for public office. How much more proof do you need that Americans are completely fed up with a one-party state masquerading as a two-party state, when voters feel they have no recourse but to elect a professional wrestler governor?

On the other hand, Jesse’s against gun laws and taxes. At heart, he’s a right-wing libertarian, and as far as I’m concerned libertarians are nothing but Republicans who smoke pot. Their basic motivation to cut government spending is greed.

I’m very pro-tax. Everybody’s income should be cut off at $100,000 and all the rest of the money should be spent for the public good, and anybody who doesn’t make 100 grand doesn’t pay any taxes at ail. The benefit for everyone would be free education, better schools, free medical care, free transportation, including air travel, and a hell of a lot of long-overdue public-works projects that are far more important than building new jails and sports stadiums. We live in extreme times that call for extreme solutions.

Do you think that pot might be legalized in the future, or has the government invested too much in the War on Drugs as a tool for social control?

What’s interesting is that the cuckoo Joe-Army Drug Czar that Clinton put in, General McCaffrey, has said there are too many people in jail, and has called it America’s gulag. I call on all the governors and states in the union to release all small-time drug offenders today. Then you wouldn’t have to build any more jails.

We should run the laws like they do in Holland and other more progressive countries in Europe, where the emphasis is on treating the addict and harm reduction, not on locking people in jail to benefit racists and the prison-industrial complex. The best vehicle for getting pot decriminalized is medical marijuana. That’s what has gotten people to show up at the voting booths and pass the initiatives. Smoke-ins in the park don’t communicate our view to enough voters. Medical marijuana is a way to crack it open.

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Inside the Underground Trade of Pirated OnlyFans Porn

In late February, rumors of a massive database of adult content stolen from OnlyFans subscription-only accounts spread through social media. At the time, both the people spreading it and the many models fearing the hundreds of gigabytes of material called it the “OnlyFans leak.”

It wasn’t a security breach of the OnlyFans platform, which hosts creators’ content for subscribers who pay on average $5 a month per subscription. It wasn’t a hack or a leak at all, but rather someone simply downloading and dumping stolen content from hundreds of models into a hosting service, and sharing the download link.

Taking content from OnlyFans accounts manually, by downloading videos one by one, would be laborious and time-consuming. But a user with some basic technical knowledge can automate this process and collect content by using a tool called a “scraper.” This software churns through the OnlyFans site and downloads whatever videos and photos a user has access to.

Any subscriber could run one of these programs and locally download all of the content a model has behind a paywall, then re-host it on free sites, resell it, or in the worst cases, use it to dox and harass models.

A Motherboard investigation has uncovered an entire supply chain of people stealing sex workers’ labor using scraping programs, without permission, in some cases by the hundreds of terabytes, and distributing it on other adult sites or selling scraping services through Discord.

Following the OnlyFans “leak,” Motherboard spoke with several performers and owners of premium adult content platforms about the problem of scraping. They agreed that it’s an issue, and that casual consumers of porn don’t realize that some of the videos they watch on tube sites for free is actually content stolen from OnlyFans and other subscription sites.


Motherboard has found a wide range of tools online that let people easily download and store OnlyFans content, whether the original creator likes it or not. Some users claim to be scraping huge volumes of content, which they say is then resold without disclosing that it originated from OnlyFans. Motherboard also gained access to Discord servers where administrators explicitly offer a paid service to scrape OnlyFan profiles.

“Some people own server farms that download terabytes of data every day from OF [OnlyFans],” a developer of one of the OnlyFans scrapers and who goes by the handle Digital Criminal told Motherboard in an email.

Some of these tools were Chrome browser extensions that give users the option to download content directly from the OnlyFans site. Others were Python scripts that automatically grab all of the content from creators that users are subscribed to. Another was a Windows program that did much the same thing. Motherboard used some of these tools verify that they successfully archive OnlyFans content to a user’s hard-drive. Google removed an OnlyFans scraping Chrome extension when approached for comment by Motherboard, but others remain available.

Digital Criminal said they made their own OnlyFans scraper because they collect images, videos, and text from the internet. Motherboard previously covered how so-called data-hoarders trade and accumulate passwords, names, and other personal information from data breaches like any other sort of collectible. These differ slightly to archivists, who may preserve digital information that is of risk of disappearing, like writing or art. Digital Criminal said they also worked more on their own script when another tool made by someone else stopped working.

“It’s very disappointing that some people refuse to recognize our work as something valuable”

Digital Criminal said this first tool stopped working when OnlyFans required users to run Javascript in their browser to view content. “I believe [this] was the first step to protect their models from being scraped easily, but they ended up making the site easier to scrape since I found their API,” they added.

But these tools are not only for people who save OnlyFans content for their personal use. Digital Criminal said they develop their script for others’ benefit too, and pointed to an underground trade in OnlyFans material where people monetize the stolen content.

“Some people own adult websites that use my scripts to download and upload content,” they said.

Another data collector who used the moniker DHRB told Motherboard in an online chat that they use another of Digital Criminal’s scripts to download content from OnlyFans accounts when they are running promotions, meaning that a user can temporarily subscribe for free. In that small window, the script then grabs all the content it can. DHRB referred to the technique as “timed promotion sniping.”

“We’ve fully scraped accounts that have thousands of videos. We don’t compress anything either since we prefer quality over storage space. Literally everything gets scraped. Images, videos, audio and text,” DHRB said.

DHRB described what appears to be a supply chain of OnlyFans content, with material being sold from one person to another, and one that original creators may be unaware that their content is ending up in.

“The data I scrape is resold to a few clients who either own adult websites that host pirated content or people who resell content on Discord. I only handle OnlyFans though,” DHRB said. “It really is just going down a rabbit hole. One person sells to another, and then that person sells to another, and so on.”

DHRB declined to name the adult sites that buy the content they scrape. “Those sites don’t say they get content from me or my partner though. It’s better that they claim it as their own so they can build trust with their user base,” they said.

But the content isn’t just being reposted on difficult-to-access forums or sites casual consumers haven’t heard of; It’s all over free tube sites like Pornhub, YouPorn, XVideos, and xHamster, easy to find using keyword searches of the subscription sites they’re stolen from. These sites then monetize the scraped content with ads that appear next to the uploaded videos.

Pornhub did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for xHamster told Motherboard that while they monitor and sometimes ban keywords for searching abusive or non-consensual material (such as the “Iggy Azalea” or the “R. Kelly sex tapes”, they said), moderating keywords that include other premium sites is more difficult, because performers sometimes upload subscription content to the site themselves to attract more subscribers.

Beyond adult sites, multiple people run their own Discord servers where material is traded, or in some cases, where they offer to scrape OnlyFans content for a fee. One administrator advertised scraping one account for $7, five accounts for $25, or 10 accounts for $50. This is often cheaper than a user would ordinarily pay to subscribe to an OnlyFans creator every month, and the buyer then gets to keep the videos and photos on their hard-drive, likely without the permission of the creator. The administrator takes payment via PayPal, Cash App, or Bitcoin, and uploads the scraped content onto the file sharing site Mega for customers to download.

Motherboard also found accounts on Reddit that advertise Mega folders allegedly containing content scraped from specific performers; one user offered a particular collection for $10. Bots in some of the Discord servers then automatically reshared new posts from some of these Reddit accounts. Reddit directed Motherboard to its user agreement, which states that it expects users to respect intellectual property and ban repeat copyright infringers. Copyright holders have to contact Reddit and file a takedown request to get it removed, first.

The Discord administrator also sells OnlyFans user accounts which come pre-loaded with credits that buyers can then use to purchase other content on the OnlyFans site, such as private videos with creators that are not on a creator’s public feed. Judging by messages in the Discord, it appears either these are hacked OnlyFans accounts or the administrator is loading them with credits via stolen payment information.

Digital Criminal said they believe these Discord administrators are using the script they created, as the resulting folder structure of scraped material is the same.


Last year, professional dominatrix Mistress Harley discovered over 500 items she’d posted for sale for about $10 each had been reposted in full to a site dedicated to reposting scraped adult content. She originally sold the videos on ManyVids, a site where performers can sell individual clips.

“Many pirates will subscribe for one month and then rip all the content they can find, in some cases issuing a credit card fraud chargeback for the one month that they subscribed for in order to steal all your content,” Harley told Motherboard. “If you know that people would rather steal from you than pay for your content and encourage you to keep making more content, it does reduce the work I’m willing to put into content.”

“Stolen content reposted on free tube sites usually makes your content less desirable and forces you to continuously step your game up to satisfy your clientele and that can likely lead to a common ‘burnout’ a lot faster,” Romi Chase told Motherboard. “Other than that, it’s just completely wrong especially that many times because of the free porn, men seem to see little to no value in our work.”

Despite looking effortless in the finished product, it can take six to seven hours to film a full-length video, Chase said—time spent planning, prepping, filming and editing.

“It’s very disappointing that some people refuse to recognize our work as something valuable while in fact we provide a type of service just like any other worker,” she said.

Chase said she believes OnlyFans is doing a good job of protecting creators by requiring users to agree not to repost content viewed or purchased on the platform as part of its terms of service, offering watermarking services to trace stolen content, and not allowing subscribers to download directly from within the platform.

Romi Rain, another performer who sells content on subscription sites, said that even with rampant content theft (she found a video ripped from her OnlyFans reposted for free to Pornhub as we were talking) premium sites have been a huge improvement over the centralized studio system.

“Performers have more control over their content than ever and DEFINITELY make more money from it,” Rain said. “Ironically the pandemic really spawned confidence in the content revolution in porn. The safety net of knowing you wouldn’t immediately go broke if you spoke out about something or stopped shooting five scenes a week with 12 hour days for a surprisingly low fee, has been everything.”

“There’s a social bias against sex workers that’s made this more permissable”

On a technical level, OnlyFans is not stopping or tangibly slowing down scraping, however. Clearly the scraping tools work reliably enough for people to use them at scale.

Larger sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn aggressively try to stamp out scraping with both technical and legal measures, but making any site invulnerable to scraping is difficult. A spokesperson for OnlyFans did not answer specific questions on what technical anti-scraping measures it takes, but the spokesperson told Motherboard that the platform has a dedicated anti-piracy team that issues DMCA takedowns on behalf of its creators.

“This procedure is inclusive of all required notices to move any infringement up to litigation if target websites refuse to comply. OnlyFans also notifies the offending domain registrars and hosting services as well as reporting to all major search engines,” the spokesperson said. “With a duty to help battle against illegal piracy, OnlyFans is firmly in the fight to protect user content. Takedown success rates this year have been over 75 percent across offending image hosting sites, torrent providers, and cyber lockers.”

OnlyFans isn’t the only platform with a content scraping problem, and it’s also not the only platform claiming it has robust anti-piracy policies in place. Tube sites also have terms of service clauses that forbid users to upload content they don’t own, but stolen and copyrighted content on those sites has been a widespread problem on those platforms for as long as they’ve existed, and often put the responsibility of getting content removed on the original content creator.

But with OnlyFans’ sudden rise in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s become an even more lucrative target for content thieves who get around those policies using scraping tools.

Other platforms Motherboard talked to are also grappling with how to prevent theft.

Dominic Ford, founder and CEO of premium adult content site JustForFans, said his platform uses a two-pronged approach to piracy. Models can report piracy to his anti-piracy company Porn Guardian, which works to get content removed from stolen sites and collects legal damages. Just For Fans also uses proprietary fingerprinting technology, which Ford says is embedded in content to identify who is streaming videos.

“If that video then gets uploaded somewhere else, we can identify who on our site was the original pirate. We can then shut them down and help our model pursue them legally if they so choose,” Ford said.

Bella French, founder and CEO of ManyVids, said that her platform employs a team to handle theft and fraud, and also uses a combination of third-party anti-piracy companies to automatically identify and remove stolen content, as well as using unique stream links for each user, generated once the user’s permission to view models’ content is validated.

But French also acknowledges that the problem of theft is as much an issue with sex worker stigma as it is technological.

“We are making every effort available to us at ManyVids to do what we can to protect the content creators and minimize the risk of piracy but I don’t think we can rely on technology as the panacea in this case,” French said. There must be a “sea change,” she said, in how people perceive the work of models, and how they consume and pay for their porn.

“This is an industry filled with hard-working people that need to generate income to be able to survive and ideally thrive,” she said. “It’s a message we must get across and the entire industry must come together on this if we stand a chance of removing the stain of piracy from our industry for good.”

At another premium content platform, FanCentro, vice president Kat Revenga told Motherboard that content theft is one of the biggest challenges creators face.

“There’s a social bias against sex workers that’s made this more permissable,” Revenga said. “Those stealing the content feel that it’s their right to take it, that the creators deserve the violation by virtue of the work they do.”

When creators alert them of content that’s been stolen, FanCentro investigates the claim and helps them get it taken down. Following the OnlyFans “leak,” the platform offered anyone affected who signed up for FanCentro free DMCA protection.

“Platforms, especially ones whose success is built on the work of sex workers need to step up,” Revenga said.


OnlyFans subscriptions range from $4.99 to $49.99 a month—on average, they cost less than a streaming video service like Netflix or Spotify—but some people still look for ways to get that content for free, downloaded from sites where thieves post content for sale or free.

Motherboard asked Digital Criminal whether they’ve considered content theft from the models’ perspectives.

“I’m going to be truthful and say while I do understand where they’re coming from, I also like keeping the content I paid for and many others do too. This is the most common justification for the script,” they said.

“[Content scraper tools] are always going to be around, people are going to record/download your content, send it to their friends, or just leak it on the internet just to spite you. The best thing you can do is to get DMCA protection to guard your content,” Digital Criminal said.

One of the people doing the scraping Motherboard spoke to blames the models for this outcome—not the thieves.

“Before you decide to put your face on the adult side of the internet where your main audience is lonely men, you’ll need to consider the fact that people are actively scraping your content to build a database of faces so they can cross-reference images on other social media sites,” they said.

Many adult sites, including OnlyFans, allow for models to set up geo-blocking to prevent people they know in real life within a certain region finding their content. Once it’s scrapped and reposted or resold elsewhere, however, that protection goes away. Anyone can see a video, and once it goes viral, there’s no telling where it will end up online. The repercussions of adult content going viral within a model’s community can be deeply damaging and in the worst cases, deadly.

But the biggest concern creators have when their content is stolen is still financial. As platforms like OnlyFans change their policies to cut their income even more, performers have to work even harder to make a living that outpaces the theft. Until consumers value sex workers’ labor as having value, the demand for free content will continue.

“When you steal or view stolen content, you’re literally taking away someone’s income,” Revenga said. “Their ability to pay rent, buy groceries or pay for education… Influencers depend on platforms to keep their content safe, and we need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent being part of the problem.”

“In general, piracy affects models very directly. Models make their money directly from consumers, and conversely, piracy is directly stealing from models,” Ford said. “It was bad enough when studios suffered, but pirates think studios are all-powerful and wealthy and wouldn’t feel it. This wasn’t true then and isn’t true now. And it’s even worse with stealing fan content, because users know this is money coming directly out of the hands of models. That makes this crime more cruel and personal.”

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The 75-Year-Old Protester Assaulted by Buffalo Cops on Video Still Can’t Walk

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Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old Buffalo activist whose assault by Buffalo cops caused an uproar over police brutality against protesters, suffered a skull fracture and currently can’t walk, according to his attorney.

“I am not at liberty to elaborate at this time other than to confirm that his skull was fractured,” Gugino’s attorney Kelly Zarcone told CNN in a statement. “While he is not able to walk yet, we were able to have a short conversation before he became too tired. He is appreciative of all of the concern about him but he is still focused on the issues rather than himself.”

On June 4, Gugino was part of a Black Lives Matter protest when he encountered two Buffalo riot cops who shoved him back onto the sidewalk. Buffalo police initially said in a statement that Gugino tripped and fell, but after a video of the incident went viral, the officers involved were suspended without pay and then later charged with second-degree assault. The video also appeared to show Gugnio bleeding from his ear.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the incident “wholly unjustified and utterly disgraceful,” while Buffalo mayor Byron Brown said last week that Gugino’s assault was “horrific.” In response to the officers’ suspension, the entire Buffalo PD emergency response team resigned.

Since Gugino’s assault, he’s been the subject of conspiracy theories floated by President Donald Trump and One America News Network, with Trump calling him an “antifa provocateur.”

Last week, Gugino responded in a text to USA Today: “No comment other than Black lives matter. Just out of the ICU. Should recover eventually. Thx.”

Zarcone said that Gugino was focused on rehabilitation and getting better, according to CNN. In a message passed along from his attorney, Gugino said that “it’s very unnecessary to focus on me. There are plenty of other things to think about besides me.”

Cover: Twitter/WBFO

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The Scientist Who Predicted 2020’s Political Unrest On What Comes Next

In 2012, VICE published an article titled, “2012 Is Bullshit; 2020 Is When We’ll Really Be in Trouble”. That headline was fairly prophetic: while 2012 saw the embers of the Arab Spring uprisings and quaint fears of a foretold apocalypse, it had nothing on what we’re experiencing now.

In 2020, the climate is on its deathbed. A global pandemic has killed almost half a million people and sent economies spiralling. The world is finally reckoning with centuries of entrenched racial inequality, with street protests met by a violent response from police and the far-right, exacerbated by an American president who intentionally stokes division among his base.

That 2012 headline was for an interview with the scientist Peter Turchin, whose field of study, “cliodynamics”, tracks “temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms” throughout US history, to essentially predict the future. You can read his team’s assessment of the last ten years here. VICE News recently caught up with him over email to ask what’s coming next.

VICE: When we spoke in 2012, you explained that 2020 would see the next state of upheaval in the US. Do you feel validated? Or were you just always certain it was coming?
Peter Turchin: The theory that made this prediction was validated, rather than me. Of course, nobody could be certain it was coming – future cannot be predicted in any absolute sense.

Fair point. Was there any stage over the last few years where you began to see it coming, though, and could tell what it might be related to?
It is a cumulative thing. The structural trends driving up instability – falling living standards, increasing intra-elite competition and conflict – have actually been going in the wrong direction since roughly 1980, so by 2010, I and my colleagues saw three decades of these trends already.

Furthermore, there were no signs that our political elites were ready to take the appropriate action to reverse these trends. They still aren’t. Then there was a growing wave of suicide terrorism, AKA rampage shootings. Life expectancies of large swaths of the American population actually shrank in absolute terms – I didn’t expect that things would get so bad. The election of Donald Trump is a very good example of a political entrepreneur channeling mass discontent – there are lots of historical examples of this. So, as I said, it was a cumulative thing.

READ: Know Their Names – Seven Stories of Police Brutality in Europe

You also said revolutions start when “members of the elite try to overturn the political order to better suit themselves”. Could you expand on that, knowing what we know now?
As I said, Donald Trump is a good example of intra-elite conflict. In terms of our theory, he started as a frustrated elite aspirant who was attempting to translate his wealth into political power. He was eventually able to do it riding the wave of mass discontent with the established elites in 2016. This resulted in even more polarisation and intra-elite conflict than what we saw before 2016.

Finally, your theory says these periods work in 50-year cycles, but does it predict when this specific period of upheaval will come to an end?
You actually didn’t get this part right – the fundamental dynamic results in very long cycles. So in American history we had two broad cycles. First, there was a rising tide of prosperity and elite unity that peaked around 1820. From there, the crisis indicators rose sharply in the years leading up to the Civil War. Indicators of crisis conditions then dropped slightly from their peak but remained high until 1920 – the years of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Gilded Age and violent labour unrest, and the anarchists. This was our first Age of Discord.

Then the tide shifted; as a result of the reforms introduced during the Progressive Era and clinched in the New Deal, wages rose and political unity grew stronger. The 1950s were a golden age of worker progress and party cooperation. Things started to turn again in the 1970s and 1980s, and in the next two decades the crisis indicators rose just as sharply as they had in the decades before the Civil War. Median wages fell in relation to GDP/capita, and the polarisation of political parties surged to new highs. So we are now in the second Age of Discord.

The 50-year cycle overlays this longer dynamic. Because the two dynamics coincide in the years around 2020, it is now that our society is the most vulnerable to outbreaks of political violence.

To answer your question: such periods of turbulence continue until the structural trends driving them are reversed. In history, they typically go on for five, ten, 15 years. So I expect turbulence to continue beyond 2020.

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The Philippine Gov’t Wants Distance Learning for Public School Students. It’s Far From Ready.

For weeks, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made one thing clear: there will be no “face-to-face” classes in schools until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

Now, with the pandemic far from contained, and a vaccine likely months away at the earliest, the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) has just two months to figure out how to provide distance learning to millions of Filipino students across the archipelago with sporadic access to the internet in time for the start of the new school year on August 24.

But given a lack of experience with mass online learning—the last school year was simply cut short by two weeks when quarantine was imposed on the main island of Luzon—observers are questioning whether they can, and whether whatever system emerges will be able to meet needs of the Philippines’ youth.

“Definitely, at this moment, we are not ready,” Raymond Basilio, a Philippine history teacher and the secretary-general of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, told VICE News on Wednesday. “We don’t have the needed technology, needed infrastructure. We still need training for how we are going to deliver modular learning, because we are only used to classroom-based learning.”

Some signs suggest unequal access to technology is already manifesting itself. Nearly 28 million students enrolled in school last year, but two weeks into this year’s online enrollment period, less than half as many have signed up.

In an effort to remedy potential access issues, DepEd is installing dropboxes for physical enrollment forms in town halls and schools for those who can’t register online.

With the issue of spotty access to technology looming, President Duterte on Monday suggested a low-tech workaround: transistor radios.

“I would look for the money to buy transistor radios to be distributed all throughout the country,” Duterte said at a task force meeting, adding that radios purchased for PHP300 (about $6) can to be given “to all barangays [villages] that could be reached by radio so that the poor could communicate with their teachers.”

Education Secretary Leonor Briones also said that DepEd regional administrators are negotiating with local radio stations to reduce the cost of airing educational shows.

“Radio, television, online, and modular learning—which are pre-existing methods and were already used for decades—are being prepared and updated this year,” Briones said, adding that teachers are being trained on how to use “newer platforms and innovative tools.”

But students aren’t the only ones affected by an uneven level of access to technology. The Philippine Daily Inquirer on Wednesday posted a series of images showing a group of teachers sitting in and around a tent they pitched alongside a highway in an effort to get a strong enough mobile signal to tune into a DepEd webinar on the new school year.

Basilio, the teachers advocate, said he believes the situation “will just further the gap between the rich and the poor.”

“The rich will have access to technology and can hire a teacher assistant in their own homes,” he said. “And the poor will have to make up with anything that’s available.”

The DepEd, for its part, has insisted that even those lacking gadgets and internet or TV access will be able to participate in learning through printed materials, which will be delivered or placed at designated pick-up points.

They also released a 723-page abridged K-12 curriculum, and guidelines for teachers focusing only on “the most essential and indispensable competencies that learners must acquire.”

Still, Basilio said it was difficult enough for the Philippines to meet teaching standards with in-classroom education, and modular and radio-based instruction will potentially worsen existing issues.

“How are we going to discuss our lessons through radio, because there is no interaction?” he asked.

Basilio said that his position remains that the coming school year instead be declared an enrichment year “for students to make up their missed lessons over the past years.”

But despite acknowledging “all these fears [over] readiness” the DepEd’s Briones last week appeared resolved to forge ahead.

“The future will not wait and we don’t want our children to wait and be left behind,” she said.

Find Sammy on Twitter.

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A German Neo-Nazi Plotted the Assassination of Pro-Refugee Mayor for Years, Prosecutors Say

A German neo-Nazi spent years plotting the murder of a local mayor after attending a speech where he defended refugees, prosecutors have claimed.

Stephan Ernst, a 46-year-old with previous convictions for violence towards immigrants, went on trial Tuesday for the murder of Walter Luebcke, a regional council chief in the city of Kassel, who was shot in the head at close range on the porch of his home in June last year. It is the country’s first alleged far-right political assassination since WWII.

Luebcke’s execution-style killing, following a string of near-miss far-right assassination attempts on political figures, sent shockwaves through German society, underlining the threat posed by the country’s growing and increasingly militant far-right.

READ: It looks like Germany’s worst fear just happened: A far-right political assassination

Ernst is standing trial alongside co-defendant Markus Hartmann, who is charged with being an accessory to Luebcke’s murder and breaking firearms laws.

Federal prosecutor Dieter Killmer said Ernst was driven by “racism and xenophobia” to carry out the murder, and that he and his co-accused both sought “an ethnically and culturally homogenous society”.

Prosecutors said that both men had attended a heated town hall meeting in October 2015, where Luebcke, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, had defended her government’s decision to open the country’s borders to migrants.

Luebcke told the meeting that welcoming refugees was a reflection of Christian values, adding: “Whoever does not support these values can leave this country any time, if he doesn’t agree.” Footage of those comments was circulated among nationalist networks online, making Luebcke a hate figure for Germany’s far-right, and resulting in death threats that led to him being assigned personal protection.

READ: How a far-right terror group’s bombing campaign unleashed something sinister in a small German town

Prosecutors said that after Luebcke’s speech, Ernst “increasingly projected his hatred of foreigners” onto the local politician, a hate that was inflamed by a string of high-profile incidents like a spate of sexual assaults by migrants against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015, and the terror attack in Nice in July 2016.

Following these incidents, prosecutors said, Ernst began tracking Luebcke’s movements, and attending right-wing demonstrations with his co-accused, who also helped him with firearms training.

Ernst is also facing an attempted murder charge over the stabbing of an Iraqi asylum seeker in 2016, which left the victim with an injured spine and two severed nerves. Police connected Ernst with the attack after finding the knife used in the attack during his arrest for Luebcke’s murder, along with a haul of illegal firearms including three revolvers, two pistols, two rifles, a submachine gun and 1,400 bullets.

READ MORE: Inside the far-right conspiracy movement that’s preparing for a showdown with Germany’s government

Ernst has previous convictions for an attempted bomb attack on an asylum home in 1993.

The trial, which is being held in Frankfurt and is expected to last until October, has attracted a huge amount of interest in Germany, where some members of the public queued overnight to get a seat in court.

Experts say the German government’s response to the migration crisis of 2015, allowing more than a million migrants and refugees to enter the country, has unleashed a wave of political violence from the far-right, which has increasingly framed pro-immigration lawmakers as enemies of the people.

Prior to Luebcke’s killing, two other local politicians were lucky to survive violent attacks. In October 2015, Henriette Reker, a candidate for the Cologne mayoralty, was stabbed in the neck by a right-wing extremist yelling about refugees, while two years later, the pro-immigration mayor of Altenar, Andreas Hollstein, survived a similar attack.

In another attack in 2015, a pro-refugee local councilman in the town of Freital had his car blown up while he slept.

If the case against Ernst is proven, Luebcke’s killing would be the first far-right assassination in modern German history. Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, said that the closest precedent was a far-right shooting of a German student political leader in 1968, causing injuries which resulted in his death 11 years later.

READ:German synagogue shooter denied Holocaust in video uploaded to Twitch

But despite growing efforts by German authorities to respond to right-wing extremism, which Interior Minister Horst Seehofer recently described as the “biggest security threat facing Germany”, deadly political violence has continued in the wake of Luebcke’s killing. In October last year, an anti-Semitic gunman shot dead two people in the eastern city of Halle as he attempted a Christchurch-style livestreamed assault on a synagogue. And in February, a gunman shot dead nine people from minority backgrounds at a hookah bar in the town of Hanau.

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Indian Employers Push Surveillance on Their Workers Even More

Earlier this year, in the north Indian city of Chandigarh, sanitation workers of the Panchkula Municipal Corporation went on strike against a wristwatch.

They said the device — supplied by their employers — tracked their movements, filmed them with a camera and had a microphone to record conversations. The watch, the low-wage workers said, fined them for taking breaks, pushed them to work more hours, and even put the onus of the maintenance and rent of the watches on them.

surveillance india

Sanitation workers in Chandigarh are being made to wear tracker watches, that come with a camera, microphone and GPS tracker. Photo: Krishan Chadha

The protest led the Municipal Corporation to promise to discontinue the use of trackers.

And then came a pandemic. “We cannot protest as we did before the lockdown,” said Krishan Chadha, the head of Sanitation Workers Union in Chandigarh. “[Now] they threaten to fire us if we refuse to wear it. It feels like bonded labour more than ever.”

Sanjay Sharma, a 35-year-old plumber from Mumbai who spoke to VICE News but asked that his name be changed for his protection, works for an online home services company in Mumbai. Before the pandemic, his employers used a GPS tracker and facial recognition to keep an eye on him. The novel coronavirus has brought with it additional features: temperature readings, which are disclosed not merely to his employers but also to customers. “I had to buy my own digital thermometer because it’s mandatory,” Sharma said.

india surveillance workers

(Left) A popular Indian online home services app requires its employees and partners to feed selfies as “proof” of wearing compulsory mask and gloves. (Right) Sanjay Sharma’s temperature readings displayed for customers. Photo: Pallavi Pundir

In another case, the restaurant chain Behrouz Biryani, which delivers to 35 Indian towns, is giving out names of all their employees along with their temperature readings. Raghav Joshi, the CEO of the India business unit of Rebel Foods, which owns Behrouz Biryani, told VICE News this was done to ensure “customer confidence” in the food they order. “As far as we know, we’re the only ones doing this. We are certain that if we share this data transparently with customers, it will be more helpful for them to be confident about us,” he said.

surveillance india

A bill by Indian restaurant shows temperature readings of all their staff.

Revealing a list of names in a country where suspected carriers of the disease are attacked by mobs raises clear safety concerns, but Joshi said they “haven’t faced any unfortunate cases [of stigma] yet.” He added, “I don’t think that will happen in our case because if the person’s temperature is high, we will ensure they are at home and we take care of their medical needs.”

Zomato, a popular online food delivery aggregator in India, told VICE News that measures like giving out temperature readings on the order live tracking screen of the app and website, are a part of “WHO [World Health Organization] practices”. Other measures include compulsory installation of India’s biggest government-initiated contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, which itself faces privacy issues.

“The current times have shifted [food] industry’s focus towards safety and hygiene,” Mohit Sardana, COO, Food Delivery of Zomato, said. “It was important for us to add as many safety layers as we could so that food could safely reach our customers.”

surveillance india

The different stages of delivery riders being checked for temperature, which then reflect on the live order-tracking screen of the website and app. Photo courtesy of Zomato

The need for contact tracing is gaining momentum across the world to detect and track infected patients, along with those they come in contact with. Following the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on public health surveillance, countries across the world have adopted the measure, sometimes through apps or physical trackers. Their merit and effectiveness remain debatable, with privacy advocates warning against the abuse of data.

In a VICE interview on April 6, Siddharth Deb, the policy and parliamentary counsel at the Delhi-based digital rights non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), said contact tracing in India doesn’t fall within a valid legal framework that respects privacy. In such cases, data collection “can happen in an excess or opaque manner”. “[This will] make it difficult to audit these activities,” he said.

Workplace surveillance is not new to the pandemic. “Earlier, some of these measures were justified in the name of productivity or efficiency or performance, which was always problematic,” Urvashi Aneja, the co-founder and director of Goa-based policy and advocacy collective, Tandem Research, said. “Now, a number of technologies are being legitimised in the name of public health safety.”

In a publicly-available worker surveillance resource, Aneja’s Tandem Research keeps a tab on the many technologies coming into play under the pandemic.

Early in June, Nilay Sheth, the CEO of Vadodara-based Nivida Web Solutions Private Ltd, launched a temperature sensor and motion app called ‘Unlock 2020’. It functions as an attendance machine, access control and reads employee temperature.

surveillance india

Vadodara-based Nivida launched a temperature sensor and motion app called ‘Unlock 2020’. Photo courtesy of Nivida

surveillance india

Nivida’s app tracks the location and health parameters of individuals, which are accessible to employers who avail their software.

“You can see the history of the employees and everyday information, too,” Sheth told VICE News. “The temperature reader, at the same time, bypasses hacks like people suppressing their fever by popping pills. The next step is to incorporate contact tracing that uses Bluetooth and gives details of the employees’ route, conveyance taken and so on.”

In May 2020, the Technology Development Board, a part of Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology, approved a project that developed a low-cost Artificial Intelligence solution that uses a video analytics platform for real-time alerts.

It also combines a low-cost thermal camera that detects temperature in crowded places.

surveillance india
A demonstration of COVID-19 thermal analytics software created by Bengaluru-based Cocoslabs Innovation Solutions Private Limited. It uses facial recognition to detect and track people’s identities and temperature reading. Photo courtesy of Pixuate website.

“This is essentially the gold rush for surveillance tech companies right now,” said Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, associate counsel at IFF. “All is justified as necessary,”

But worker surveillance is also known to exacerbate inequalities. In China, the Uighur community face cultural erasure through surveillance and predictive technology. In the US, it has deepened racial divides.

In India, experts and activists are calling out governments and private players for disproportionate monitoring of especially low-wage and gig workers. “If the temperature check is made voluntary, people like you and I can kick up a fuss. But for low-wage workers, that option doesn’t exist. If they don’t say yes, they lose their livelihood,” said Aneja.

Mukhopadhyay said that the inequality is palpable in the surveillance imposed on blue-collar and white-collar workers. “For the white collar, you see measures like CCTV cameras, key-logging softwares, email monitoring and so on,” she said. “For blue-collar workers, the measures are more invasive like wearable tracking devices.”

In Chandigarh, the protesting workers are contract labourers who are also Dalits: those belonging to castes whose members were previously considered untouchables. Other surveillance measures, like the nationwide digitisation of identity through Aadhaar, were criticised for marginalising communities like sex workers and gender minorities.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019—which sets rules for how personal data should be processed and stored, along with the fundamental right to personal information—is stuck at the Lok Sabha (lower house) of the Indian Parliament. The bill, experts say, is key to maintaining the dignity of labour.

Throughout it all, digital experts are most worried about one big question: What happens post-pandemic?

A key solution is to include a sunset clause to the bill, or an expiration date to all forms of surveillance.

On June 4, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport (IFAT), which includes transport and delivery workers with companies such as ride-hailing service Uber and Zomato, raised concerns over the mandated use of Aarogya Setu.

“Snooping on an individual, accessing their contacts, camera, messages are a valid concern for all to consider,” it said.

Aneja predicts that the focus and commodification of health data will eventually manifest in a Black Mirror-esque “rating system”, in which a worker is scored on the basis of health parameters. “Disease propensity or probability will be factored in, and it will be done through algorithmic systems. It will be like a health scorecard for workers,” she said. “It’s a grim future.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE IN.

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