Katarzyna Szymielewicz
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   Poland

Katarzyna Szymielewicz

Fundacja Panoptykon
In the digital era where video and electronic surveillance, whether conducted by government or corporations, has become nearly ubiquitous, Katarzyna instills new behavioral patterns and redefines…
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W erze cyfrowej kamery i nadzór elektroniczny, prowadzony przez rządy lub korporacje, stały się niemal wszechobecne. Katarzyna promuje nowe wzorce zachowań i redefiniuje praktyki organizacyjne władz publicznych, instytucji państwowych, organizacji społecznych i biznesowych, społeczności i jednostek. Działa na rzecz umocnienia społeczeństwa obywatelskiego, w celu monitorowania procesu legislacyjnego i interwencji prawnych, mających na celu wprowadzenie prawa do prywatności i mechanizmów kontroli obywatelskiej w istniejących i nowo powstałych przepisach.

This description of Katarzyna Szymielewicz's work was prepared when Katarzyna Szymielewicz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


In the digital era where video and electronic surveillance, whether conducted by government or corporations, has become nearly ubiquitous, Katarzyna instills new behavioral patterns and redefines organizational practices of public authorities, state institutions, social organizations, communities, and individuals. She does this through empowering civil society to monitor legislative process and legal interventions aimed at incorporating the right to privacy and civic control mechanisms in the existing and newly established laws. By educating influential communities of media, opinion leaders and teachers, Katarzyna and Panoptykon Foundation equip them with knowledge and tools to safeguard fundamental rights and citizenship endangered by surveillance practices.

The New Idea

Katarzyna is the first person in Poland to articulate and stand up for the interests of the citizens in the protection of their fundamental human rights in the specific context of surveillance, the practice of which has increased massively with the advent of new technology.

Katarzyna envisions a society that has ability to choose and to control the practices and mechanisms of surveillance effectively, so that private and state authorities will use such measures only when necessary. This vision will only come to life with the redefinition of organizational practices and behavioral patterns. The transformation process needs to be supported by the rule of law, presence of the topic in the mainstream public debate, and educational efforts, leading to changing the practices of business, government and general public. To achieve this, Katarzyna has expanded her multi-dimensional approach across Europe.

By safeguarding fundamental human rights through constant monitoring of decision makers and other stakeholders responsible for the digital infrastructure (policy makers, banking, insurance, health, education, urban policy) at the national and European level, Katarzyna advocates for incorporation of the right to privacy, limiting surveillance in existing and newly elaborated legal acts both at national and European level. Her efforts lead to major legal changes such as limiting mandatory retention of data, or new forms of privacy protection online. Using media and citizens’ engagement Katarzyna is changing the practices of public authorities (i.e. Polish intelligence agencies increased their transparency to share data) and convincing decision makers to take into account the challenges of surveillance in their proceedings.

Through direct informational and educational activities, Katarzyna is mobilizing a critical mass of diverse influential communities whom she educates, engages in public debate and eventually provides with tools to take initiative. Influential journalists, opinion leaders, social and business organizations, and communities of hackers transfer complex language of digital issues and their implications (i.e. data retention, predictive profiling) into the public debate and political discourse. Acting as multipliers, they persuade general public and individual consumers into greater watchfulness in sharing their personal data, photos, or any other information in various contexts (e.g. when dealing with financial transactions online and offline, when communicating with public authorities). As a result, activists and civic organizations acknowledge the influence of surveillance, redefine their organizational practices with respect to digitalization and the use of surveillance measures in their daily work or take up own fights adequate to their field of interest. Through Digital Rights Academy and other educational programs, Katarzyna addresses the increased presence of cyberbullying among youth and low awareness on online security and data mining. Across all levels of education system Katarzyna equip teachers, youth educators and facilitators with knowledge and tools that enable safe, conscious and creative use of digital technologies.

The Problem

All societies that depend on processing personal data and data mining for administrative processes or public security are surveillance societies. What is surveillance? In this context, it is any collection and processing of personal data for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered. It seeks out digital profiles (“data doubles”) abstracted from individuals. Video and electronic surveillance, whether by government or corporations, has become nearly ubiquitous in many societies with little or no discussion by citizens of its actual utility, and become basis for important decisions that affect us directly. Based on the data collected marketers develop interactive selling methods that go far beyond what any doorstep salesperson ever used to achieve; Internet service providers have gained tools to predict next steps of their clients; banks and insurance companies are able to use data that is available online to verify statements made by their clients.

Hewlett Packard’s Internet and Mobile Systems Laboratory announced in 2001 that, “We want to make people, places, and things web-present.” Other companies and states followed agreeing that there is an historical expectation of less privacy, resulting from consumer convenience being a central selling point for ubiquitous computing technology and surveillance. However, the arguments and actions towards bridging the physical and virtual worlds have grown at an exponential rate, easily outstripping all legal and political efforts to keep abreast of their social implications, including citizens losing control over the actual use of their personal data.

Google is only 16 years old and Facebook is only 10 years old while 57% of adults in US and 74% of those ages 12 – 17 are on it (Pew Internet & American Life Project). Nine in ten (93%) teens have a computer or have access to one at home. In Poland numbers are increasing rapidly: 74% of kids and teenagers between 9 and 16 years old use Internet on a daily basis. And nearly 88% of them (age 11 - 12 and 15 - 16) have their personal profiles on social media. Mobile access to the internet is common among teens, and the cell phone has become an especially important access point - in Poland 83% of youth operates cellphones (73% smartphones), which is higher than US (78% of teens have cellphones, 57% uses smartphones). In Europe the average age of first phone ownership is at 7.1 years (mobileyouth.org). The adoption of mobile applications and rise of smartphones have yielded to a more accessible form of cyberbullying. It is expected that cyberbullying bullying via mobile phones will increase to a greater extent than exclusively through other more stationary internet platforms. In addition, the combination of cameras and Internet access and the instant availability of these modern technologies yield themselves to specific types of cyberbullying not found in other platforms. Cyberbullying, surveillance, data mining are growing phenomena of computing technologies. These are relatively new phenomena, but it is already common for kids and teenagers to engage with the seemingly safe space where youth share their personal data online (name, exact address, email address, pictures and personal movies). Those unconscious actions lead to exposure, data infringement and cyberbullying – often resulting in unexpected humiliation, embarrassment, especially cruel for growing kids. Young people are the first generation to deal with that phenomena on global scale and hence creative, conscious and most importantly, safe usage of the Internet remains a challenge for most of them. When 62% of children has better computer skills then their parents, and 82% of teachers believe that digital education at schools is meant to provide skills limited to computer usage, there is no support neither within the education system, nor at home for youth to conquer that challenge.

Typical state rationale behind increasing surveillance is security, swift management and belief in modernization. The rationales for various types of surveillance in the business world are predominantly based on profit. (To illustrate the significance of the challenge with respect to business, the value of the EU citizens’ data in 2011 was estimated at 315 billion EURO, while in 2020 it may increase to trillion of EURO (EU Commission, V.Reding)). The interests in favor of the expansion of surveillance and use of personal data – or “big data” – are enormous. Yet the collection of data through surveillance is not innocuous. Indeed, many believe that what is at stake here is our freedom and ability to determine our own lives: from consumption-related choices through politics, to fundamental decisions in life – concerning our education, job or place to live. The risks of “big data” are not simply limited to personal choice, they also relate fundamentally to equal treatment. In our society, individuals increasingly run the risk of exclusion and other forms of discrimination with the growth of predictive profiling and new data mining techniques, which today are becoming the core business of many new companies.

Every surveillance society has its local context. Polish society shows stronger tendency towards horizontal surveillance, or the surveillance from one agent to another on the same power level. This might be from one corporation to another – i.e. industrial espionage - or from one person to another. Polish society is also displaying higher acceptance of surveillance in relations with the state than it is the case in other European countries. 63% of Polish people have concerns with regard to their privacy and reputation being threatened by new technologies. At the same time, however, the local communities show eager support for introducing new surveillance measures. Even though researchers have documented that presence of video surveillance cameras in their community reduced the likelihood of community members coming to the aid of others in their community, it might be correlated with low level of social capital and trust, recent political transformation and growing social disparities. These social disparities manifest themselves in places like fenced-in areas with guards where people feel more secure and separated from others, public spaces around neighborhoods, the popularity of visual monitoring and the increasing acquiescence towards monitoring of individuals – migrants, released convicts and other excluded persons. The growth of these phenomena has a source in the lack of knowledge and awareness among decision makers regarding the challenges related to the information society and how that affects human rights. Finally, what has been missing is evidence-based and constructive public debate that would expose real impact of digitalization on human rights to the public.

There are a few European and international organizations that try to address the challenges of surveillance societies; however, they focus mostly on digital rights (freedom of electronic communication and access to information). There is a need for approaching the challenges of digitalization from a broader perspective of human rights and its implication on national freedom in all aspects of life.

The Strategy

Katarzyna established the Panoptykon Foundation in 2009, using a term referring to a concept of the great 19th century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who ideated the “ideal” prison where the prisoners are always in sight of their guards. Given the rapid growth of surveillance in the digital world, creating a situation of individual and personal monitoring that was in some respects more intensive than Poland’s communist past, Katarzyna’s vision is a society in which individuals have a choice in determining what level of surveillance can be placed upon them. Her strategy to achieve this vision is multi-pronged. She works towards increasing societal control over the decision-making and legislative processes that regulate surveillance and affect human rights. She sees the role of Panoptykon as working to shape the emerging digital infrastructure so that it will incorporate opportunities for individual choice and societal control. (The societal control mechanisms are two-fold: 1) monitoring and attention to what is being done, said or proposed by decision-makers or opinion-leaders, and 2) the laws themselves.) These mechanisms will enforce legal changes, ensuring a higher level of protection of human rights that should be respected both by the state as well as private entities. In Katia’s view, individual choice and privacy protection can only be achieved by both bottom-up efforts of educated active citizens’ groups as well as top-down efforts by the opinion leaders and influential people who will contribute to the creation of new laws and their enforcement.

To address insufficient protection of fundamental human rights in a surveillance society, Katarzyna built her approach upon the redefinition of organizational practices to instill new behavioral patterns of those who create the digital infrastructure: public authorities, policy and decision makers, social and business entities, academia and - eventually - also individual citizens, who leave their digital trace behind. To change organizational practices and to instill new behavioral patterns to protect privacy, Katarzyna recognized that a massive public education effort was required to familiarize individuals and institutions with the presence and potential impact of heightened online and video surveillance. Simultaneously her foundation is pushing an agenda for a new regulatory environment, undertaking both nationally and regionally, while monitoring all existing and proposed legislation. Her strategy affects on one hand the rule of law – altering existing laws and establishing new laws - and, on the other, equips diverse, influential communities with tools and knowledge. As a result, those communities act as multipliers, that transfer the complex digital language into public debate and mobilize others to change their attitudes and eventually patterns of behavior in the context of surveillance. Advocacy and educational activities are being supported by broad monitoring of existing and proposed legislation as well as a very thorough research and data collection to deliver merit-based arguments in discussions that involve various sectors of society and authorities.

Since 2009, Katarzyna has become the leading authority and spokesperson on the topic of surveillance and its impact on fundamental rights. Her work with Panoptykon focusing on education and advocacy addresses four key areas: safeguarding privacy, protecting fundamental freedoms online, contesting the “security” paradigm that drives much surveillance, and other policies of social control. In each of these areas Katarzyna's work has been ranging from monitoring the legislative processes and demanding access to public information (520 motions were filed), working with opinion leaders (journalists and influential experts), recommending amendments to legal acts (160 proposed in the last 3 years), participating in the expert groups on shaping reforms, and educating government representatives (using, for example, workshops for ministry officials on privacy rights). As a result of intensive advocacy and hundreds of conversations, public debates and seminars (over 150) with experts, and broad presence in media (over 1000 media hits), the topic of human rights in the context of surveillance has been picked up by mainstream media and journalists, and entered public debate. In particular, Katarzyna and Panoltykon have succeeded in launching an ongoing discussion around reform of European laws on privacy and surveillance and its application in Poland. Katarzyna and her institution have highlighted that in many cases, the perceived benefits of the surveillance policy do not exist, and where they do, they may be outweighed by the costs, though at present little discussion of these trade-offs occurs.

Given the relative novelty of the issue (at least as it relates to new forms) in contemporary Polish society and beyond, Katarzyna emphasizes the critical role of media in initiating public debate with key influential and decision-making figures in Poland and Europe. She collects contemporary data on diverse forms of surveillance (like predictive profiling) and explains its functioning to general public. Based on their research, the educational and information materials are being created and made available to broader audience to increase the awareness of key groups of citizens (i.e. IT communities of hackers, digital media users, other civil society organizations, schools, educators and others) and thus empowering them to take actions towards protection of their rights (i.e. tactics of defense, self-organized groups, flash mobs, etc.) or engage politically (i.e. grass root activism). Since its establishment, Panoptykon published over 1300 articles on their topics of concern. She and Panolptykon work both within and external to governmental bodies in their efforts; for instance, she has been a member the consulting body of the Polish Ministry of Administration and Digitalization (MAiC), engaged in designing new laws and recommendations applicable to national market.

In addition to targeting media, Katarzyna works with diverse groups of influential communities, whom she perceives as critical multipliers, to become engaged with the issues. These groups may all have different concerns with the rise of surveillance in Polish society, but her goal is to have them adapt the overall messaging and translate what is often complex language and concepts to their own work and interests. For example, a journalist from opinion-leader weekly will post on his blog and then write big piece in the weekly itself on simple reccommendations on privacy protection when using internet. Another example is an organization that is working on access to public information hosts a workshop for its community leaders on protecting their communication from digital abuse. Recently, Amnesty International in Poland changed their practices with regards to data protection and is now helping other human rights organizations to apply similar approach. Those multipliers increase their own awareness, change their practices and influence their and other communities and clients. Katarzyna wants to instill them with a critical approach towards surveillance practices, that are being incorporated in all aspects of citizens’ life – education systems, health care (central education and healthcare databases), banking, insurance, any many other areas and industries, whether online or the real world. She is specifically targeting journalists and national media, selected opinion leaders and experts, young people who are organized and active online (15 – 19 years old), teachers and educators who work with younger people (11 – 15 years). Through national media and opinion leaders, Katarzyna hopes to reach out also to those who are not yet aware and are not interested in understanding the surveillance techniques and its consequences.

Translating complex digital issues into "everyday" language is a challange that Katarzyna and her team approach with usage of creative media. As part of its educational efforts, a series of animated movies have been produced - filmy.panoptykon.org - and are widely distributed through the network of partnering organizations. In partnership with major educational, youth-oriented and human rights organizations, Katarzyna implemented the “Digital Rights Academy” and “Digital Toolkit for schools and adults” program responding to a lack of awareness and knowledge on safe and conscious use of online tools and other new technologies. The “Digital Toolkit” offers direct training and materials for conducting classes and activities with youth throughout the education system. Teachers and educators are firstly trained and then receive complete scenarios for 45-minutes classes on several topics related to safe and conscious use of digital technologies: cyberbullying and safety measures; safe communication online; finding out who can follow you online; digital traces and profiling – how to deal with it; the right to privacy; your online existence and impact on your community; and more. In the pilot program, 12 complete scenarios were published with 6 more on the way in 2014-2015. In the pilot program, 80 teachers were trained directly on workshops organized by Panoptykon and more than 30 hours of school classes conducted directly with approximately 300 children and youth across Poland to verify the practical appliance of the scenarios. The Academy for Digital Rights is aiming at increasing the available resources on ethics, law and safety in using new media. The program is addressing new cohorts of educators and teachers to build their knowledge and competence to address those complex issues with young people. Ultimately, the ambition is to change the attitudes and increase awareness on what digital education on conscious and safe usage of new technologies is all about.

The societies are only starting to understand how the personal (online) profiles, population data and biometric information are emerging as dynamic sources of power in today's world, be it during financial transactions online or offline, while searching the web or in the streets, where the monitoring systems are controlling our moves and behaviors or even influencing our actions. Research showed that existence of camera causes lack of intervention in the event of theft or other abuse in the streets. How they augment already existing arrangements, and what impact they have on already existing divisions based on income, gender, ethnicity and region - all that is yet to be explored. But it is already quite clear that surveillance and data flows are crucial to the life chances of all who live in today’s global information society.

Addressing surveillance as a global challenge, in 2000 Katarzyna joined the European Digital Rights international coalition and advocacy group to influence the legislation processes at the European level, before it reaches national debate. In 2012, she became the vice-president of this umbrella organization. Through her work the recommendations related to privacy rights have been already incorporated into European Union Parliament statements and legal proceedings. The protests mobilized against Anti-Counterfeiring Trade Agreement (ACTA) led to rejecting the agreement both at national and European level. The national educational effort mobilizing citizens to verify the functioning of monitoring systems in their cities and neighborhoods, as well as publicly available spaces and institutions, is leading to redefinition of existing monitoring legislation in Poland, and will serve as an example for re-defining European laws. Katarzyna is convinced that within next 5 – 7 years, with the user-friendly information campaigns on such topics, the awareness of general public on surveillance and its impact on our life will increase significantly, and through external pressure (peer groups, trendsetters) will change our patterns of behaviors towards new technologies. Educational activities across system education will raise a generation of young people who will be consciously and safely availing from the benefits of digital technologies. As new generations grow, the societies will mature within democratic settings, and they will also assume stronger and more confident roles in controlling both public authorities and private entities in protection of fundamental rights. It will require some amount of work from all citizens, but it is worth it. Eventually, as Katarzyna says, it is about our freedom and the shape of society today and for the future generations.

The Person

Katarzyna comes from a small town in the Northwest part of Poland. An ambitious and active student, she decided to study law to gain “concrete” skills to ensure she could earn a living.

When she won the European Moot Court Competition, she was offered a job with an international law firm. She was hesitant but took it, as she wanted to do something more meaningful. While searching for that meaning, Katarzyna found the Development Studies in the School of Oriental and African studies in London and applied for it. To pay her tuition she managed to convince her employer to allow her to move to London to continue with her full time job, and also full time studies. The studies were a revelation to her, exposing her to problems in developing countries, like poverty and depravation of fundamental human rights. She wanted to travel to Mexico to work to solve these problems.

She came back to Poland when there was change in the government and the new president had been proposing practices that were disruptive to democracy, including undermining the value of the rule of law and independent state authorities such as the Constitutional Tribunal. Katarzyna felt that going to Mexico would be ridiculous when the rule of law in her own country was endangered. While returning to Poland, she became involved in disclosing CIA prisons in Poland and cover-up of this issue. At that point she realized that the issues related to freedom, human rights and state oppression were the areas which she felt both passionate about and competent given her legal experience and interests. She felt a strong discontent with the general acceptance of erosion of freedom, which seemed inevitable, when the majority of society was not aware of the processes of erosion of freedom (leading people to allow their data to be collected and/or not changing their behaviors online). Seeing the need and opportunity for change, to engage the general public and launch a public date, Katarzyna decided to form an organization to put the topics of surveillance, rights to privacy and information society in the center of public debate and interest. And she did it. In 2009, Katarzyna set up the Panoptykon Foundation, which very quickly became recognized as the watchdog of fundamental rights and citizenship and the spokeperson for all citizens in surveillance society.

Katarzyna is working closely with German Ashoka Fellow, Stephanie Hankey, the founder of Tactical Technology Collective.

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