Written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Art by Kristel Brinshot.
Asher Wolf is a data rights activist whose work focuses on the intersection of technology and human rights. In 2012, they founded Cryptoparty, a decentralised, privacy-focused movement. Wolf was a lead organiser on the campaign against the automation of debt recovery by Australian government program Centrelink, which led to welfare recipients paying miscalculated debts because of errors in the system. The process, known as “robo-debts,” was recently found to be unlawful via a High Court case, and a class action is pending.
A thriving sole parent, Wolf is a Jewish socialist who occasionally howls at the moon and revels in making architects of oppressive systems uncomfortable. Wolf is a recipient of an Amnesty Human Rights Media Award.
You’re a self-proclaimed information activist, gonzo political theorist, and internaut — internet astronaut. Tell us more about your work as a grassroots digital activist, and what you’re passionate about.
I was born to be a Baba Yaga, an old witch of sorts. I was raised on family tales of oppression and dark fairy tales. I grew up angry. It’s not really a surprise. My dad and grandmother were Holocaust survivors. I was gender queer, the child of a violent, conservative alcoholic. I always felt out of place. I got kicked when I was down a lot.
The internet was the first place where I could quit being scared of my shadow and just stomp around.
I have a habit of falling into awkward things. I was the only person with a ponytail in a computer class full of teenage boys. I was raised as a secular Jew, but somehow ended up in a Chassidic high school where they were immediately in strife. I was non-neurotypical and living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an undiagnosed, invisible and painful disability. I was the eternal weirdo.
I became a guardian of the internet because I owe it a debt. The internet was the first place where I could quit being scared of my shadow and just stomp around. I explored the world through the internet; I’m an “internaut.” It allowed me to discover that the fight to protect underdogs makes me forget to be scared. The internet helped me to discover that I like the person I am when I’m brave. So the places where social justice intersects with digital rights is my home when it comes to activism.
You came to the attention of many in Australia through your work on the Centrelink Robo-debt scandal. How did you bring that to national attention?
The campaign against robo-debt was spearheaded by many people, including hackers, lawyers, data scientists. My role was to network with people and use my Twitter account to make the issue unmissable. The most important thing in any campaign is to recognise what people bring, and find a way to help them feel included. I loved working on the campaign against robo-debt because it let me be an internet mum: figuring out people’s skills, bringing people together to collaborate on the campaign and nurturing people’s special talents.
How would you characterise your relationship with “the online”? How has that changed over time, if at all?
I learnt where I fit best online as an activist by making mistakes. Huge mistakes. I made a lot of them. Finding out where I fit online was a process of figuring out where I fit in the world. I had to learn how to switch off sometimes, had to learn not to engage with trolls, just walk around and ignore them. I had to learn what was important to me in my interactions. I weed the garden that is my online experience a lot. Allowing for entropy online is important: people change, places change and you should too.
You founded Cryptoparty, described as a “decentralised movement to pass on knowledge about protecting yourself in the digital space.” Why is that so important, especially for people without structural power in society?
Cryptoparty was essentially a mass reaction to an encroaching unwelcome culture of online surveillance. At its core was the idea that data rights are human rights and you shouldn’t have to buy human rights to be able to access them; privacy should be free for all.
You also write and share about your experience with disability with candour and honesty. How does your passion of digital activism and disability activism intersect?
My activism has always been an extension of my anger against structural injustice. And, yes, I’m angry about the lack of funding of allied health services for people with complex and chronic healthcare conditions. I didn’t aim to become a disability activist. I just wanted the system to change.
You’re passionate about public policy, design and healthcare systems becoming more genuinely inclusive of people with disabilities, especially those that are not visible. Why do you think people seem to continue to get inclusion wrong?
Australia’s health system is a system that works pretty well for people who are healthy. For a 37 year old white man who falls off a ladder and bumps his head, Australia’s health system will patch him up pretty quickly. But the stats show that for remote and rural communities, people of colour, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQI, neurodiverse people and for people with disabilities, the health system can be a place that abandons them to unimaginable pain and suffering. And that’s not acceptable. It’s simply discrimination and a refusal to change. A large part of why the health system continues to get inclusion wrong is lack of reporting when things go awry: hospitals report the big ‘sentinel’ events (e.g. when a pair of forceps are left inside a patient) but don’t log things like longterm misdiagnosis or diagnostic odyssey, where patients spend years with the wrong diagnosis and getting the wrong treatment. Many public hospitals aren’t publishing their data on adverse events. It’s my firm belief that public hospitals shouldn’t be allowed to access state and federal funding if they don’t regularly and accurately curate and publicly report data for wait times for outpatient clinics, diagnostic odyssey and other complaints, so issues can be addressed.
…the stats show that for remote and rural communities, people of colour, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQI, neurodiverse people and for people with disabilities, the health system can be a place that abandons them to unimaginable pain and suffering.
Who are the other activists you look to for guidance in your work?
My friend Thomas Drake (an NSA whistleblower) taught me a lot about how to live in a world as a dissident. I’m grateful to him for showing me that it’s possible to have grace in courage while under the glare of the public eye. El Gibbs (Media and Communications at People With Disability Australia) and Christina Ryan (CEO Disability Leadership Institute) have acted as wonderful mentors for me in disability rights activism. And Michael S. Laufer of Four Thieves Vinegar, who taught me how to be an anarchist when it comes to personal healthcare.
What brings you joy?
Cooking is my meditation. I’m pretty much at my happiest when I’m making soup.
About the Author
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate.
Yassmin trained as a mechanical engineer and worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia for years before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016. She published her debut memoir, Yassmin’s Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, and followed up with her first fiction book for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019. Yassmin’s critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including theGriffith Review, the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqaand The New Daughters of Africa.
Yassmin founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years. Since, Yassmin has co-founded two other organisations and now shares her learnings through keynotes and workshops. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, What does my headscarf mean to you, has been viewed over two million times and was one of TED’s top 10 ideas of 2015.