Why The Computer Company Raspberry Pi’s New Hire Caused A Social Media Firestorm

“I think what we’re looking at is a dogpile that’s being organized somewhere,” a Raspberry Pi cofounder told BuzzFeed News.

Toby Roberts holding a lightsaber

Joe Bowser is a computer scientist based in Port Moody, British Columbia, who has long loved Raspberry Pis. He uses the low-cost, single-board computers, which were launched in February 2012 by a UK-based company of the same name, for many of his tech projects. Those include linking the Raspberry Pi up to a 3D printer, and using the Pi to run a machine-learning demo.

There’s one use case that Bowser described as “the most important”: using a Raspberry Pi to identify the use of IMSI catchers — telephone eavesdropping devices that snoop on phone calls and text messages — by law enforcement. Protesters opposing new oil pipelines happen to pass by Bowser’s house regularly. He thinks cops shouldn’t spy on them. So he’s trying to help out the protesters using his tech knowledge.

To do that, he uses Raspberry Pis. Or more accurately, he did. Bowser has forsworn using the computers ever again. He and many others are expressing their displeasure with the company on social media. The controversy began yesterday when Raspberry Pi posted an announcement on Twitter and Mastodon: “We hired a policeman and it’s going really great.” The company linked to a laudatory blog post on its website announcing it had hired an ex–police officer, Toby Roberts, as its maker-in-residence.

“I was a Technical Surveillance Officer for 15 years, so I built stuff to hide video, audio, and other covert gear,” Roberts is quoted as saying in the post. “You really don’t want your sensitive police equipment discovered, so I’d disguise it as something else, like a piece of street furniture or a household item. The variety of tools and equipment I used then really shaped what I do today.” (Roberts did not reply to a tweeted interview request from BuzzFeed News; Raspberry Pi declined to make him available for an interview.)

A subsection of the Raspberry Pi community expressed concern about the blasé way the company presented intrusive covert surveillance. (The news caused particular ire on Mastodon, leading some to describe Roberts as the burgeoning social media platform’s first “main character.”)

“You’re basically telling me and people like me who do privacy work and activist work that you’re anti-that,” Bowser said. “You’re alienating a large chunk of your customers by going pro-cop. The company clearly doesn’t know how their products are being used in the world. A lot of people who use it are anti-authoritarian, anti-surveillance, and don’t like police brutality. And they’re actively building tools using the Raspberry Pi and others against those things.”

“I think this event will mark a turning point in the organization's reputation. It's hard to see how they can recover the trust they seem to have almost willfully dismantled today.”

Matt Lewis, a Denver-based site reliability engineer, echoed those sentiments. “I am disgusted that [Raspberry Pi’s] official post on Toby Roberts’ hiring promotes his use of their products to surveil individuals without their consent,” he wrote via Twitter DM. “In my eyes, this behavior is completely unethical and the work Toby has done for 15 years is indefensible. I’m also upset that they have chosen to double down on this position against the community outrage.”

Wikipedia consultant Pete Forsyth, who is from Oregon, also had strong words for Raspberry Pi. “I think this event will mark a turning point in the organization's reputation,” he wrote via Twitter DM. “It's hard to see how they can recover the trust they seem to have almost willfully dismantled today.”

Liz Upton, Raspberry Pi’s cofounder and chief marketing officer, told BuzzFeed she believes that much of the issue stems not from the hiring of the former police officer who admitted to using Raspberry Pis for covert surveillance, but instead from a picture the account posted to Mastodon a day earlier showing pigs in blankets. “We didn’t put a content warning on it, because we don’t put a content warning on meat,” Upton said. “There were quite a few people who tried to start dogpiling on that.”

She also claimed that part of the vitriolic response could be because Raspberry Pi is struggling with supply chain difficulties at present, and people “were already cross.”

“I think what we’re looking at is a dogpile that’s being organized somewhere,” Upton said. “There’s obviously a Discord or a forum somewhere.” She did not provide evidence to support that claim. “I don’t think this is organic, but it’s very unpleasant, and extraordinarily unpleasant for the people involved,” she said. Upton claimed both Roberts and Raspberry Pi’s social media manager have been doxxed and received death threats.

Not everyone is downbeat about the future of the company. University of Surrey cybersecurity professor Alan Woodward called Roberts an “interesting hire” for Raspberry Pi. “His previous uses of the Pi shows just what a versatile device it is: I’m sure he’s not the only one using the smallest variants to make covert devices,” Woodward said.

The academic doesn’t see the issue with Roberts’s involvement with the company. “You find that you have to be very creative to build these types of covert devices, so hopefully he can now bring that to his new role, for a wider variety of applications,” he said.

In part, Woodward’s confusion over the outrage is because of the lack of impact that Roberts is likely to have on the way that Pis are used. “It’s not as if he is going to corrupt any of the Pis — like all technology, it has some uses some people will object to,” he said. Rather, Woodward believes “the loudest objectors are taking it a bit far. Maybe they could look at it as a glass-half-full situation: Think of the unusual innovations he might bring.”

That’s a belief shared by Josh Hills, an online game developer based in London. “I'm not too incensed by the news,” Hills admitted. Yet Hills — who became closely intertwined with the company’s ethos and culture during his time working for a company based in the Cambridge Science Park where one of Raspberry Pi’s offices is based — does feel something has changed. “I think the word ‘openness’ springs to mind,” he said when asked what he believes Raspberry Pi’s culture is. “It’s open source — and that is the antithesis of private surveillance.”

Raspberry Pi’s Upton objected to the use of that term: “‘Private surveillance’ is a little bit of a dog-whistly way to talk about what [Roberts] has been doing.” When BuzzFeed News pointed out that the blog post the company published indicates that Roberts engaged in such activities, Upton replied, “He was a surveillance officer, yes. He was doing that as part of his job where he was catching people who were doing really, really bad stuff.”

She added, “I don’t think any of the people complaining here would not call the police if their house was burgled.” When BuzzFeed News pointed out that police don’t surveil burglars, Upton agreed that’s true.

“I think there are people out there intent on perpetuating a culture war on Mastodon. And I’m not sure their motives are necessarily benign.”

Numerous people have been upset at the way Raspberry Pi has addressed criticism on social media. Among them is James Spencer, a London-based developer. “In my head they've always been this grassroots company just trying to do computer stuff with makers and hackers,” he said via Twitter DM.

Spencer raised his concerns over Robert's hiring directly with Raspberry Pi on Mastodon; the brand told him to “chill,” then blocked him. Spencer described the company’s reaction as “toxic” and “indicative of how they've grown as a company.” He added, “A social media manager for the company doesn't have to be technical, but at its very base, they clearly do not know their audience.”

Upton said she believes much of the negative reaction to Roberts’s hiring is not genuine. “Toby was in the police force for 30 years in the UK,” she said. “He’s a decorated officer. He worked on organized crime, on getting drugs out of schools. He’s not a bad person, and this is not the United States. I think there are people out there intent on perpetuating a culture war on Mastodon. And I’m not sure their motives are necessarily benign.”

Upton prevaricated as to why Spencer had been blocked by Raspberry Pi’s official account on Mastodon. Confronted with the messages and the account’s response, she said it was likely Spencer had been banned for “concern trolling” because he wrote, “You've basically written this guy specialises in surveillance and now he works with our computers, yay!”

Later in the interview, Upton said that the social media manager had possibly received death threats around the time Spencer replied to her post and could have been shaken up. “If she has made an error and blocked somebody who should not have been blocked, people should give her the benefit of the doubt given what had just happened to her,” Upton said.

When asked whether Raspberry Pi had managed the situation well as an organization, Upton responded, “I think come next week we will be talking about something else.” She also said as a Chinese woman she has long had bad experiences on the internet. “Your characteristics aren’t necessarily visible, but Toby is a former policeman. That is how he identifies. It’s what he is.” When asked if she was trying to equate being a police officer to being a Chinese woman, Upton replied, “No, no, no, no, absolutely not. But I am saying people will grab onto things to jump on.”

Hills, the game developer, believes that it’s entirely possible people are going overboard in their responses to the hire because of what they thought Raspberry Pi represents — and what they think Roberts does. “Maybe people are getting overworked on social media,” he said. “They see the word ‘policeman’ and they’ve gone off on one. The bloke might be a lovely guy.”

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