Through the Looking Glass: Information Security and Middle East Research

By Sarah E. Parkinson, Johns Hopkins University

*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 24: New Challenges to Public and Policy Engagement. Click here to download the entire publication as a free, open access PDF and to see each of the individual memos.

Scholars of and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are often accustomed to living and working in settings shaped by state surveillance. Yet in recent years, new modes of observation and coercion have emerged both in the field and at home. As researchers began carrying more technology with them, they have necessarily learned to take extra care with data before crossing borders and checkpoints. And since maintaining an online presence has become nearly compulsory for academics, regimes and non-state actors have responded by following and, sometimes, intimidating those who voice critiques or challenges to official narratives, raising the concern of censorship.

The ever-changing legal, technological, and political environments where scholars operate require constant updating of information security practices for both practical and ethical reasons.[1] Yet they also hold implications for how, where, and with whom scholars conduct and discuss their research, not to mention the ease and safety of doing so. The following essay addresses one evolving site of risk in particular – border crossings – while touching on two others – legal strategies employed to request confidential scholarly materials and online harassment. It uses these examples as a means to underscore growing threats to academic freedom, the energy it takes to manage them, and the burdens of doing so. It explores ways to think about these risks and provides resources for further reading in the footnotes. Finally, it assesses how changing security and legal practices may influence the free flow of ideas and people, stymieing academic debate.

The New No-Man’s Land

 In recent years, in the wake of incidents ranging from attempted hacking of scholars’ email accounts to high-profile theft of celebrities’ digital photos, there has been increasing attention to individual-level data security practices.[2] Independently of locale, robust information security is critical in the event that one’s electronics are lost, stolen, compromised, or confiscated. Hacked or copied researcher data can endanger research subjects’ lives, compromise researchers’ own security, violate intellectual property protections, expose researchers to pre-publication politicized attacks, and make overseas communities hesitant to work with future U.S.-based scholars (to name only a few risks).[3] Excellent guides by organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) can introduce scholars to the main tenets of threat assessment, data encryption, safe information storage, and security precautions such as two-factor authentication.[4] These basic practices are essential, both for adoption by individual researchers to protect the security of their data and as a necessary subject matter for graduate training.

Borders often present special challenges for researchers, particularly those who study, visit, or live in the MENA. For years, scholars traveling to and around Israel and Palestine have faced long lines, exhaustive searches of luggage and electronics, and intensive questioning. Academics and journalists working in the field have been detained when exiting countries such as Lebanon. Still others have been banned from entering states such as Egypt. Scholars in the region face harsher circumstances. In the past year, thousands of Turkish academics have been fired, arrested, and/or barred from travel altogether.[5] And, if one does have the resources and ability to travel, obtaining United States and European Union visas for MENA-based scholars can be extremely challenging.

Yet there are also emergent risks in the U.S. that merit scholars’ immediate attention. In 2015 and 2016, several journalists who work in the MENA were stopped at the U.S. border; at least one (a Canadian citizen) was denied entry when he refused to unlock his mobile phones for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after they had photocopied his personal journals.[6] More recently, Executive Order (EO) 13769, issued in February 2017, produced chaos when at least 60,000 non-citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries had their immigrant or non-immigrant visas provisionally revoked; nearly a thousand people with previously valid travel permissions were denied boarding on U.S.-bound flights, while 746 were stopped by CBP upon landing.[7]

Multiple U.S. court cases were filed to contest EO 13769. On February 3, 2017, Judge James L. Robart of the U.S. District Court of Western Washington issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) that functionally halted the EO’s enforcement at the national level. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the U.S. government’s request for a stay and the TRO blocking implementation of the EO remained in effect. However, CBP has continued to apply extra pressure to those traveling from the MENA (among others). Travelers have reported that CBP has demanded access to their electronics and requested that they log in to social media accounts. While some electronics searches are legal under what is commonly termed the “border search exception,” [8] asking travelers to grant CBP access to their online accounts is a legally contested practice that threatens academic freedom and could endanger both scholars and their interlocutors.[9] Some U.S. citizens, upon refusing to allow access, have had their mobile phones confiscated; noncitizens can face refusal of entry for the same decision. The Department of Homeland Security has recently suggested making social media password requests at borders standard for some travelers.

On the Home Front

 This is to say nothing of what can happen when scholars of contested issues begin to publish or speak publicly about their research. In recent years, there has been an emerging pattern of researchers being targeted for ostensibly “controversial” or “politically biased” research.[10] The goal is rarely to question the research itself; rather, it is to harass, distract, and threaten the researcher in order to dissuade inquiry on the topic or teaching of certain points of view. For instance, climate change researchers have been at the receiving end of state-level Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits, which are usually made possible at public universities by state-level “sunlight” laws.[11] Intimidation tactics may also be used by non-state actors. In one case, a Canadian academic who agreed to testify on behalf of a community she had studied was informed she would have to release confidential interviews from her PhD research to the attorneys for the defense (a company building a wind farm in the community).[12]

Internet platforms such as Twitter can both amplify scholars’ voices and expose them to harassment. At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, several professors were condemned online after decontextualized writings or representations of their talks were featured on media outlets.[13] The succession of events was similar in each case: A scholar says, writes, posts, or tweets something that is removed from context and labeled “controversial.” Online media outlets amplify the accusation. Then, anonymous actors mob the scholar’s social media, launching threats of reputational damage, physical confrontation, rape, and death. They repeat inaccuracies in other outlets, threaten the target’s defenders, contact university administrations, and demand that donors withdraw support. In at least one of these cases, colleagues who defended the academic were themselves doxxed (that is, had their home address and contact information publicly released on the internet) and subsequently received death threats. There are many variations of this behavior. During the siege of Aleppo, one colleague participated in an interview where she noted that the majority of civilian deaths in the city were the Syrian regime’s responsibility. She was immediately barraged with insults and sent a flood of graphic videos of children being murdered; she later traced the Twitter handles to Russian-speaking accounts. Other forms of such targeting have included unrelenting abuse related to researchers’ perceived race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or simply their physical appearance.

The Fallout for Academia

These practices obviously imperil intellectual diversity, freedom of association, and the unrestricted exchange of ideas.[14] The threat they pose to the continued excellence of American academe and to the global exchange of knowledge is underscored in several petitions and in amicus briefs signed by seventeen U.S. universities.[15] Even if individuals are never targeted themselves, the environment itself influences researchers’ behavior when they choose topics, field sites, and even university positions. The mere potential of encountering “enhanced” security measures at U.S. borders or facing the possibility of denied entry is clearly already enough to keep many bright minds away.[16]

Less discussed is how targeting technology at the border also threatens academics’ ability to conduct robust, evidence-based research in the field and to travel for professional reasons. First, scholars often carry sensitive material on their electronics – from FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) covered student information to HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) protected patient information and IRB (institutional review board) safeguarded subject information. Of course, this material should already be encrypted and password protected. However, now arriving at the U.S. border and refusing to unlock a phone or grant access to email risks raising suspicions with a CBP agent unfamiliar with FERPA, HIPAA, or IRB, and could result in the researcher’s detention and the electronics’ confiscation; a non-citizen could be denied entry all together. The risk of having a phone or computer accessed and privileged information copied at the U.S. border is enough to dissuade many from traveling in the first place.

Second, the environment that surrounds this collage of policies and practices encourages a slide into academic self-censorship. The risk of compromised data, subpoena, enhanced screening, or detention makes conducting fieldwork in the MENA even more difficult, especially for noncitizens studying and working in the U.S. The subsequent chance of being targeted by baseless FOIA requests or violent Twitter mobs even if one conducts, publishes, and publicizes the research may further dissuade academics. The colleague who conducted the interview about Aleppo, for example, has not spoken to the press since she was targeted.

Third, self-censorship, fear, and intellectual isolation also take a toll both psychologically and in terms of productivity. In many cases, academics already experience extreme stress, exhaustion, and sometimes, trauma (first or second-hand) in the field.[17] The sheer effort it takes to protect data can feel cumbersome and time consuming when one only wants to pull a two-line quote from field notes. Second-guessing every email to a co-investigator (because it may be subject to the Freedom of Information Act) or every Tweet comes at a mental and productivity cost. Initially careful scholars may also allow their precautions to lapse when they are not chosen for secondary screening. It can be easy to feel lulled into a false sense of security until one is personally affected. Coping with the aftermath of doxxing can take weeks, or even months, robbing academics of precious research and personal time. All of this can also have severe mental health consequences and monetary costs.[18] The compound effect of these factors is that compelling, exciting, field-based research on the MENA may suffer a grievous blow if academics and administrators do not take steps to protect it.

What can scholars do?

One of the most obvious implications of these realities is that is that scholars should request support from their departments, from their schools’ information technology departments, and from university legal offices. My university’s technology staff recommended specific hardware that was more secure for my overseas travel and helped train me on it. University administrations should work to ensure that faculty and graduate students have funding for or access to loaner technology specifically for travel so that they are not forced to bring their personal equipment through borders. Universities and professional associations such as the American Political Science Association (APSA), the International Studies Association (ISA), and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) should continue to advocate for academic freedom by publishing amicus briefs, lobbying policymakers, providing legal support for non-citizen scholars, and pushing state legislatures to pass legislation such as researcher exemptions to sunlight laws.

Scholars should also be independently proactive. Consulting materials from non-governmental organizations such as the ACLU and EEF is a good start, especially when first acclimating to the foundational habits of information security. Speaking with journalists or those in the tech industry who have experienced harassment or reading their stories can also be helpful. For scholars who are active on Twitter – and may face related harassment –resources such as the Crash Override Network can be invaluable for those experiencing online abuse, harassment, or doxxing.[19] Sharing information with other scholars if one is stopped at a border can help others modify their own threat assessment.

The response to these scenarios is not to withdraw or concede. Rather, it is to build the knowledge and support networks that allow academics to continue their scholarship.

Sarah E. Parkinson is the Aronson Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.


[1] Fujii, Lee Ann. 2012. “Research Ethics 101: Dilemmas and Responsibilities.” PS: Political Science & Politics 45 (04): 717–23; Parkinson, Sarah Elizabeth. 2014. “Practical Ethics: How U.S. Law and the ‘War on Terror’ Affect Research in the Middle East.” POMEPS Studies 8. Ethics and Research in the Middle East. Washington, DC: Project on Middle East Political Science.

[2] Goodin, Dan. 2016. “Google Warns Journalists and Professors: Your Account Is under Attack.” Ars Technica, November 24.

[3] Parkinson, Sarah Elizabeth, and Elisabeth Jean Wood. 2015. “Transparency in Intensive Research on Violence: Ethical Dilemmas and Unforeseen Consequences.” Qualitative and Multi-Method Research 13 (1): 22–27.

 [4] Electronic Frontier Foundation. 2015. “Academic Researcher? Learn the Best Ways to Minimize Harm in the Conduct of Your Research.” Surveillance Self Defense. September 21. The entire Surveillance Self Defense menu can be found at For a user-friendly guide centered specifically on cybersecurity, several technology professionals have recommended Hackblossom’s DIY primer. See: “A DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity.” 2017. Accessed March 3.

[5] Bohannon, John. 2016. “Turkish Academics Targeted as Government Reacts to Failed Coup.” Science, July 20.

[6] Sidahmed, Mazin. 2016. “Department of Homeland Security Detains Journalist Returning from Beirut.” The Guardian, July 21, sec. Media.; Timm, Trevor. 2016. “Attention All Journalists: US Border Patrol Agents Can Search Your Phones.” Columbia Journalism Review, November. Badawi, Kim. 2015. “TSA Taught Me Just How Fragile Freedom Is.” Huffington Post. December 9.

[7] The US Department of State gave the 60,000 figure to the Washington Post. Kessler, Glenn. 2017. “The Number of People Affected by Trump’s Travel Ban: About 90,000.” Washington Post, January 30., Matt. 2017. “The Government Now Says 746 People Were Held due to the Travel Ban. Here’s Why That Number Keeps Changing.” Washington Post, February 24.

[8] For relevant case law see Abidor v. Napolitano (1:10-cv-04059-ERK) and Riley v. California (13-132). Also see: Kessler, Tamara. n.d. “Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Impact Assessment: Border Searches of Electronic Devices.” Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

[9] Waddell, Kaveh. 2017. “How Long Can Border Agents Keep Your Email Password?” The Atlantic, February 27. Bhandari, Esha. 2017. “Social Media Passwords Shouldn’t Be a Condition of Entry to the U.S.” American Civil Liberties Union. February 28.; Center for Democracy and Technology. 2017. “NO to DHS Social Media Password Requirement.” Center for Democracy and Technology. February 21.

[10] Flaherty, Colleen. 2016. “New Website Seeks to Register Professors Accused of Liberal Bias and ‘Anti-American Values.’” Inside Higher Ed, November 22. Neiwert, David. 2015. “Fox-Driven Outrage Over ASU Professor’s Course on ‘Whiteness’ Drew Threats, Neo-Nazi Activists.” Southern Poverty Law Center. May 11.

[11] Mann, Michael E., and Michael E. Mann. 2016. “I’m a Scientist Who Has Gotten Death Threats. I Fear What May Happen under Trump.” The Washington Post, December 16. Harvey. 2016. “In the Age of Trump, a Climate Change Libel Suit Heads to Trial.” Washington Post, December 23, sec. Energy and Environment. Sunlight laws have also been used to intimidate researchers for signing political petitions. See: Rubino, Kathryn. 2017. “Law Professors That Spoke Out Against Jeff Sessions’s Nomination Subjected To Records Request.” Above the Law. Accessed March 3.

[12] Kondro, Wayne. 2016. “Canadian Researcher in Legal Battle to Keep Her Interviews Confidential.” Science, November.

[13] While these practices are long familiar to those who study and advocate for Palestinian rights (for example), they appear to have become more widespread recently. Brooks, Rosa. 2017. “And Then the Breitbart Lynch Mob Came for Me.” Foreign Policy. Accessed March 2. Strauss, Valerie. 2017. “Analysis | Georgetown Professor under Fire for Lecture about Slavery and Islam.” Washington Post, February 17. Fields, David. 2017. “The Far Right’s New Offensive Against Academia.” Radical Political Economy. January 12.

[14] Reardon, Sara. 2017. “How the Fallout from Trump’s Travel Ban Is Reshaping Science.” Nature. News. Accessed March 3. doi:10.1038/nature.2017.21579; PEN America. 2017. “Aggressive Interrogation of Artists and Writers at U.S. Border.” PEN America. March 3.

[15] Reichman, Hank. 2017. “Research Universities File Amicus Brief Against Immigration Ban.” ACADEME BLOG. February 14. Redden, Elizabeth. 2017. “Universities Cite ‘Damaging Effects’ of Trump Order.” Inside Higher Ed, February 14.

[16] American Civil Liberties Union. 2017. “What To Do When Encountering Law Enforcement at Airports and Other Ports of Entry into the U.S.” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed March 2.

[17] Loyle, Cyanne E., and Alicia Simoni. 2017. “Researching Under Fire: Political Science and Researcher Trauma.” PS: Political Science & Politics 50 (1): 141–45. doi:10.1017/S1049096516002328.

[18] Schenk, Allison M., and William J. Fremouw. 2012. “Prevalence, Psychological Impact, and Coping of Cyberbully Victims Among College Students.” Journal of School Violence 11 (1): 21–37. doi:10.1080/15388220.2011.630310. Bartow, Ann. 2009. “Internet Defamation as Profit Center: The Monetization of Online Harassment.” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender 32 (2).

[19] “Crash Override Network // Online Abuse Helpline And Advocacy Organization.” 2017. Crash Override. Accessed March 2.