Alley spotlight series: Tim Schwartz

In this series of posts, we highlight some of our awesome team members and the things that capture their interest outside of work. We encourage everyone at Alley to follow their passions because being personally invested in something sparks creativity, drive, and a refreshed view of countless areas of a person’s life. Sometimes those benefits even follow the person back to work.

Tim Schwartz, one of our Digital Strategists at Alley, recently published his book: “A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity.” In this Alley Spotlight, we asked Tim about his new book as well as his passion for teaching anonymity and his expression through artwork. 

Tell us about the book you published.

I wrote a book over the last three years after co-organizing a group called LA Cryptoparty for about eight years. The book was the culmination of my experience in teaching people about how to disclose information safely. There have been many famous whistleblowers and disclosures: Deep Throat, Snowden, Chelsea Manning, those that spoke up about Weinstein and tons more. My book is a handbook on how to think about and safely gather and deliver information about wrongdoing to the press, lawyers, or a public accountability organization.

If you put yourself in the shoes of anyone that has been harassed or even just seen embezzlement at work, it becomes really clear that they are David and the system they are up against is Goliath. Take the fact that whistleblowing isn’t something you practice time and time again until you get it right, that you need to get it right the first time, it makes it an incredibly daunting task – and frankly one that should be lauded more in society. 

Why is anonymity so important to you? Why do you think it is something we should all be aware of?

My main recommendation for any would-be whistleblower is to be anonymous from the start. I am of the opinion that privacy is dead and once you accept that, anonymity becomes your only real option for protecting yourself or a task you need to complete. The basic idea of anonymity for a would-be whistleblower is to compartmentalize the tasks they need to do, such as gathering information, messaging a newspaper, or even simply doing research. By being anonymous in doing any of these tasks and doing them in ways that are compartmentalized/disconnected from their real identity, a whistleblower can protect themselves and go undetected for as long as possible. This is a generally different way of thinking for most anyone attempting to release information. We have been taught over the years that privacy and security are the important ideas to focus on, but really they are tools for keeping your identity unknown. 

In general though, I think everyone should start to think about anonymity first rather than “privacy.” For example, say you think you have a disease or a medical condition and you want to do research on it. There could be a chance that by posting about it on social media or even researching it that an insurance company could see what you are doing and deny you coverage in the future by claiming pre-existing conditions. Another more salient example would be Amazon increasing prices on you based on what they calculate you are willing to pay, rather than what the market rate is. This is called “first-degree price discrimination” and is only possible when your identity is tied to your purchases. If you buy things anonymously, how can you be discriminated against?

What was it like writing a book while working full time?

Writing a book while working is hard! Thankfully, though, I work with a team and a company that was supportive and flexible when I worked. I tried to write most mornings before I started work for an hour, and at least twice a week I would take the morning to go write at a library, then start work after. Finding my own routine in writing was difficult in and of itself, but having flexibility from work was key. 

What about the other artwork you create? What do you express through it?

A pale yellow stylized version of an iPhone Messages screen, printed with letterpress including messages, icons, keyboard and dates. The visible messages from Marian read "…the girls from airport around 6 pm Friday" and the response "Awesome! Can't wait to see them!"

I went to school for visual arts and have a career as an artist as well. My work over the last ten years or so has been focused on two main themes. One, of course, is privacy and security and educating and exploring those ideas through artbooks and performance. The other is investigating changes in our society as everything becomes digital, and I’ve generally looked to books, archives, and libraries as systems of investigation. I’ve made sculptures looking at digitization practices of graphically complex books, the long term storage of digital materials using eInk screens as the primary medium, and even how copyright and patent systems could use reform – but shown through a drawing project. 

Now that the book is out, I’m excited to get back in my studio and refocus on a project about the transition from metal type in the newspaper industry to digital type. I actually have my own machine for making molten metal type in my studio, so I’ll be doing a lot of letterpress work later this year. 

Did you learn anything about yourself during the process of writing your book? Is there anything you bring back to your normal work or life from your artwork?

Writing a book was by far the hardest thing I’ve done so far in my life. I had done some large projects before, but none that took multiple years, and none where I actually had to learn a new skill along the way. I’ve actually never enjoyed writing. Most of my writing has been code, emails, and documents at work. Writing a book was something else entirely. I would say the first six months was just learning my own voice and style.

But now, as you can imagine, I can just sit down and write. Also, I now hold editors in very high esteem. I had no idea how much a strong editor could help a book. I had a few editors on this project and in fact, Margaret Schneider, Alley’s Director of Editorial Projects helped me reconstruct many of my sentences and ideas! Thanks Margaret!

Tim Schwartz in a white shirt and pants holding a laptop facing away from the camera and walking into the sunset in the desert