2 triangles filled with a pink printed image of prison
Print zine imagery by Christopher Goggs

In their provocation for The Cost of Convenience, Mallika Balakrishnan and Julia Slupksa discuss why tech companies should be held accountable for extending carceral systems that harm our best shot at environmental justice.

Environmental activists disrupt the convenience that powers climate change.

Whose convenience has been a source of tension in the environmental movement: the past years have seen a shift from disrupting individual consumers (e.g. by blocking roads to promote a message to drivers) to corporate and state decision-makers.

In 2019, thousands of Silicon Valley workers went on strike in protest of their employers’ climate impact, directly targeting tech companies (1).

Silicon Valley positions itself as having the tools to save the planet, but its business model of extraction and accumulation are part of the problem. Further, its technologies facilitate the surveillance of environmental activists, including through contracts with law enforcement.

“Carceral systems will not produce the tools to save us from climate crisis.”

Digital platforms prompt activists to share data, offering a variety of affordances that help activists mobilise and connect with others. In doing so, these platforms also make activists more legible to law enforcement.

In India, Google, Facebook, and Zoom seemed to cooperate with the government’s arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi for sedition (2).

In the US, Facebook turned over detailed records on the indigenous-led protests against the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines (including messages to and from the group’s page and a list of everyone “invited” to the protest event) (3).

Surveillance of protest movements both during and in between protests takes up a much larger share of police time and resources than is commonly understood (4).

In the UK, undercover police officers posed as members of  environmental justice groups and initiated romantic relationships with women, in one case even fathering a child while assuming a false identity (5).

UK police also placed Extinction Rebellion (XR) on a list of extremist groups that should be reported to Prevent.

Even so, groups like XR which are predominantly white and middle class, and have a history of cooperating with police, are likely to be treated much better than people of colour doing this work. Surveillance tech and environmental destruction target racialised communities hardest.

We must investigate the cost of convenience in terms of convenient platforms, convenient contracts between tech and the state, and convenient ideas about clean, green tech that produce billions for a few while entrapping the rest of us in racial surveillance capitalism.

White-washed climate activism and green-washed tech obscure the need for systems change towards sustainability, as opposed to quick fixes.

Rather than treating tech companies as saviors, we should hold them accountable for extending carceral systems that harm our best shot at environmental justice.

We look to movement-led structural change that tackles environmental destruction and its links to broader systems of oppression– that means no surveillance tech in our climate justice.


Mallika Balakrishnan, University of Cambridge and Julia Slupska, University of Oxford

1)     Matsakis, Louise. 2019. “Thousands of Tech Workers Join Global Climate Change Strike.” Wired.
2)     Klein, Naomi. 2021. “India Targets Climate Activists With The Help of Big Tech.” The Intercept.
3)     Davis-Cohen, Simon. 2018. “The Justice Department Helped a County Prosecutor Target the Facebook Records of Anti-Pipeline Activists” The Intercept. 
4)     Gillham, P.F. 2011. “Securitizing America: Strategic Incapacitation and the Policing of  Protest Since the 11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks.” Sociology Compass, 5: 636- 652.
5)     Lewis, Paul and Rob Evans. 2020. “Secrets and lies: untangling the UK ‘spy cops’ scandal”The Guardian