This is a profile of Alex Argüelles, a Mozilla Fellow in the Tech and Society Fellowship program.
In 2012, Alex Argüelles (they/them/their) watched as the student movements and protests in Mexico gained momentum in the run-up to the general election, and local media began referring to the period as “The Mexican Spring.” At the time, Argüelles worked with Más de 131, an independent student-run news outlet born amidst the protests and covered many human rights-related movements. Argüelles and the other student journalists saw some of their peers who participated in these movements persecuted and imprisoned. The Más de 131 team soon realized how journalists in Mexico were being targeted and surveilled through the very digital tools they used to do their work.
Más de 131 benefitted from working with organizations like Article 19 and Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales, which train media workers and raise awareness on digital rights and security, monitor attacks on freedom of expression, and defend digital rights in Mexico. “We were very fortunate to have the support of these two organizations to help us realize where we stood amongst these really complex networks of political participation,” Argüelles says, noting that being students at a private university implied a privilege that made this type of assistance possible.
Argüelles and Más de 131 knew they needed to learn more about data security and online surveillance. Argüelles began reaching out to hacktivist groups, asking for advice and materials to help protect activists online. By 2016, Argüelles’ work expanded through Mexico and Latin America as they began providing digital security and psychosocial support to victims of political and gender-based violence: “My work has always been about listening to what activists and human rights defenders need and trying to build bridges for them to expand their skills and harness knowledge, breaking dependencies on support specialists even beyond tech,” they say.
My work has always been about listening to what activists and human rights defenders need and trying to build bridges for them to expand their skills and harness knowledge.
In their most recent work as part of their Mozilla Tech and Society Fellowship, Argüelles founded comun.al, which they describe as a “digital resilience lab” where activists can share technological tools, resources, and spaces to advance human rights and social justice. What distinguishes comun.al’s approach to digital resilience is the understanding of the complex matrix of violence, oppression and inequity that creates different divides across race, class and gender amongst civil society. It holds a holistic and trauma-informed perspective, combining liberation pedagogy and transformative justice practices to assess capacity-building and knowledge-nurturance by and for the communities they collaborate with.
Argüelles remembers how much it meant to Más de 131 to be able to consult organizations that helped the journalists continue to do their work and stay safe. So they created comun.al in that same spirit. Through comun.al, Argüelles is excited to be working with many newer, younger activist groups and organizations, including those focused on advancing the rights and representation of queer people, trans people, and sex workers.
Argüelles also continues to support activists and journalists by running workshops on digital security. Even though Argüelles takes a holistic approach to these programs, they started to notice a disconnect between what they covered in the workshops and what the participants seemed to need the most. For instance, Argüelles often works with people in the LGBTQ+ community in Mexico, who face increasing discrimination and violence that often times is accompanied by social stigmatization and marginalization. Their immediate physical integrity might seem completely unrelated to digital security and data protection.
One tactic Argüelles teaches in data resiliency workshops to help preserve online privacy is to use alternative technologies to popular video-calling and online media sites, which are hosted and provided by comun.al. But some participants told Argüelles that even though they recognized the importance of data security, they are more interested in learning how to set up social media accounts or monetize digital content on mainstream and increasingly unsafe platforms. Though that may seem unsuitable when addressing digital security, Argüelles believes it’s critical to meet people’s digital needs on their terms, laying a foundation to discuss more complex security and surveillance issues later.
Argüelles also argues more generally against the idea of new technologies as a panacea. “Technologies are only tools,” Argüelles says. “We need to start looking at technologies more as tools to advance in our projects and interests instead of as solutions for social issues in and of themselves.” In 2013, Mexico amended its constitution to include internet access as a human right and guaranteeing net neutrality. Argüelles says that this looked like a positive step on the surface. But in practice, the changes opened avenues for the government to surveil people using digital technology. In 2020, Argüelles wrote an article cautioning against the use of health-tracking apps many Latin American countries launched in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, ostensibly to try to staunch its spread.
“No doubt, an emergency of this proportion requires extraordinary measures. But it is worrying that beyond the introduction of certain technological tools, there is no clarity regarding the use, limitations, and safeguard measures in the treatment of personal and sensitive data that will be massively captured through their implementation,” Argüelles wrote of the apps. “In this very vagueness lies the possibility that these measures will not just become normalized over time, but may also be abused to strengthen mechanisms of social surveillance and control, to the detriment of human rights.” This foreshadowed the privacy risks individuals now face with the Ehterazz and Haya apps, which everyone attending the 2022 World Cup is required to install upon arriving in Qatar.
The past several years have brought change and clarity for Argüelles in their personal and professional lives. They recently started publicly identifying as non-binary and were shocked at the negative reactions they experienced — even in groups where they were previously welcomed. “It’s very hard, because you have to reassess all of your connections, and even your strategies of survival and support,” they say. “For me, the past few years have been great because the support I received from the Mozilla community allowed me to find other possibilities and connections from different parts of the world,” Argüelles says. “And at the same time, it’s been a hard few years in which I realized the need to expand our networks, while also supporting and recognizing the work of people who are being sidelined as gender-based violence towards trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people increases worldwide,” they say.