Digital privacy — visible and delusional

A larger discussion about implications of gendered experiences in digital privacy, unintended exposure, digital security divide, and some thoughts around recent events.

TLDR

There’s been an increasing gender disparity in digital behaviors and perceived Internet privacy because of disproportionate gendered experiences. This affects women more than men, indicating a much larger implication of reproduction of social inequality and structural discrimination in digital contexts. We should only expect the rise of such experiences with end-to-end encryption platforms, bad design choices, and constantly changing privacy regulations. 

Table of Contents:


1. Context and digital privacy concept

2. Privacy in the Supreme Court     

3. Anonymity, visibility, exposure and transparency in technology      

4. Digital implications of gendered privacy risks

Context and digital privacy concept 

A terrible Capitol riot has triggered a series of challenging questions around technological objectivity and neutrality: the socio-technical meaning of blocking Trump from platforms like Facebook and Twitter, a mass migration of far-right and QAnon groups to end-to-end encryption messaging apps like Telegram & Signal, the impact of disinformation and conspiracy theories spread on provoking physical violence, etc etc. And all of this is happening during a century largest pandemic, an economic fallout that has left millions jobless, a historic cry for racial justice, and a presidential election that exposed deep divides in American society.  If you want to get more context, here is a set of articles I recommend reading: 

But, I think we should be hopeful as we are entering the age for what it’s called “post-truth,” or of the various attempts to end the lies, lying, and liars. The bigger question we have to ask is how can we narrate the “truth” without rigid recourse to the dictates of objectivity? I should say more, that’s how disinformation exactly originates and spreads instantly.

It is, therefore, so crucial to build a digital privacy on an equal basis and regulate it in such a way, so that none of us will lose the ground truth anymore. Because mistaken or blatantly shared data will only amplify our feeds on just one particular content — partial truth or a lie. 

The concept of privacy is usually thought in the context of having private shelter or the autonomy of human bodies in physical space from the public. Staying private in the physical world is not the same in the digital world because it doesn’t mean that personal information can not be implied or inferred from other pieces of available data. In fact, the choice of not disclosing information due to access, poverty, geography is data itself that inherently produces systemic biases in the digital world. 


Privacy in the Supreme Court 

In the United States, the notion of privacy has been evolving through the number of the Supreme Court cases. One of the landmark privacy decisions was issued in Carpenter v. United States, ruling that the access to a personal geolocation data in cell phone needs be warranted. It means that in digital context, where highly sensitive data can be tracked back, personal information is protected by the Fourth Amendment, 

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” 

What is crucial about it is the fact that it was decided only in 2018. You can now understand how law is actually lagging relatively to some of the most recent things that we’ve been facing.


Anonymity, visibility, exposure and transparency in technology 

When talking about the right to privacy in digital spaces, there is a growing tension between the Internet open movement, the idea of transparency on the web, and data protection rights to privacy and freedom from unlawful surveillance. The idea of commodification of the data came from a Hacker Manifesto, arguing for the openness and free information in digital culture. In the digital world it’s crucial to have both public and private spaces, however, the clear line is still being challenged by new technologies. (Wark)

Online visibility, however, disproportionately affects marginalized communities due to the negative exposure online. For example, Lebanese policemen used to Whatsapp conversations to persecute LGBTQ community (Hawkins), while Egyptian police used Grindr to gather photographic evidence and set up dates to geolocate and thus imprison gay people. (Jankowicz) Invisible identification, collected data, and exposed digital trails can put certain groups of people at higher risk facing violence in real life due to institutionalized homophobia and structural inequality.

On the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council there was a discussion about how anonymity and end-to-end encryption enable identity threat and fraud, however, they are still crucial parts in protecting the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom from violence that is mediated in digital contexts. (Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue) Some of my colleagues from the New York Times wrote, 

“The rise of Telegram and Signal could inflame the debate over encryption, which helps protect the privacy of people’s digital communications but can stymie the authorities in crime investigations because conversations are hidden.” 

As someone with the background in open-source investigations, likewise, a lot of times tweets and important videos get deleted online, meaning evidence is gone. Although we have certain workarounds by archiving all the evidence found in digital, it is utterly crucial that tech companies cooperate with human rights groups. Read how “Big Tech Can Help Bring War Criminals to Justice.”

So, on the one hand, end-to-end encryption is good because it is the most secure way for communication. On the other hand, when misusing it or in the hands of evil actors, it is bad because there is no way to investigate and trace back for investigations. Additional complex layer comes when structural inequality already exists in a physical space. The more I think about it, the more I realize how the notion of “copy pastable” is naturally taken for granted when building an app like Whatsapp — it is by design assumed that it should work the same in different cultural contexts. Unless the country decides to ban it completely. 


Digital implications of gendered privacy risks

One of the biggest concerns is the implication of accessibility in the usage of social networks platforms and managing privacy. For example, confidence in managing personal privacy online and technical skill were found to be at a much higher level in men than women. The study has also shown that “privacy behavior of the older women tends to be more prone to data exposure, vulnerable to potential pitfalls frequently associated with display ad click-in or exchange opt-in.” (Yong Jin) Moreover, gendered patterns can be easily detected through online behaviors such as buying dresses and also link to close correlates like visiting a gynecologist, working in a feminized field, etc. (Williams, Betsy)

Another research was conducted with Italian population, highlighting gendered privacy practices on Facebook. Women were found to be more aware about the online protection than men because they had more concerns about “invasion of the private sphere not only by other users, but also by Facebook itself and third-party partners'' as well as sharing personal data and revealing sensitive information that could have related by growing “episodes of online crime against women (sexual grooming, harassment or intimidation by cyber-bullies or stalkers)” (Farinosi, Taipale). Should we bring this research report that was produced way before 2016 to a recent article on Whatsapp, “For anyone who started using WhatsApp since 2016 — and that’s many people — Facebook has been collecting a lot of information without an option to refuse.”

Equally is important to acknowledge that in some communities technological devices like mobile phones have disrupted patriarchal regimes of control, where young women could access free information and educate themselves. The issued order 2014 in the rural area of India about the ban of mobile phones for young people under 18 years old with the argument that

“Girls using mobile phones are easily connected and approachable and this freedom may create unnecessary problems for her family honour” (Kovacs).

Invasive practices in digital contexts and gendered surveillance imposed by powerful institutions undoubtedly have harmed and continue to exacerbate structural inequalities in women’s lives. This disparity is called a digital security divide and is considered to be one of the most important challenges to be addressed to reduce gendered privacy risks.

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Some of you were wondering about books I read, so here is the picture. I started with “Uncanny Valley” by Anna Weiner:

Follow me on Twitter or Instagram to learn what i’m up to! Hope we will have a great and peaceful week (can’t wait for a historical Inauguration!) 😉 Read more some of the previous Off the Table issues here: 


Stuff I read to produce this piece: 

  1. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

  2. Duggan, Maeve. “Online Harassment 2017.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 18 Sept. 2020, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017/.

  3. “Carpenter v. United States.” Oyez, 22 June 2018, www.oyez.org/cases/2017/16-402.

  4. “The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” National Constitution Center – The 4th Amendment of the

  5. U.S. Constitution, constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-iv.

  6. Wessler, Nathan Freed. “The Government Needs to Get a Warrant If It Wants Access to Our Private Health

  7. Information.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 29 May 2019, www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/medical-and-genetic-privacy/government-needs-get-warrant-if-it-w ants-access.

  8. “Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 18 December 2013.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A%2FRES%2F68%2F167.

  9. “The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age.” Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council, 3 Aug. 2018, undocs.org/A/HRC/39/29.

  10. “Impact of New Technologies on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Assemblies, Including Peaceful Protests.” Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council, 24 June 2020, undocs.org/A/HRC/44/24.

  11. Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press, 2004. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue.” United Nations, Human Rights Council, 17 Apr. 2013, www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.40_EN.pdf.

  12. Indira Ganesh, Maya ,etal. Tactical Technology Collective,2016, Privacy, Anonymity, Visibility: Dilemmas in Tech Use by Marginalised Communities, https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/20.500.12413/12110/TacticalTech_Online_FINAL3.pdf

  13. Hawkins, Anthony. “Lebanese Police Use WhatsApp to Persecute LGBT Citizens.”Human Rights First, 16 Oct. 2014, www.humanrightsfirst.org/blog/lebanese-police-use-whatsapp-persecute-lgbt-citizens. 

  14. Jankowicz, Mia.“Jailed for Using Grindr: Homosexuality in Egypt.”The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 Apr. 2017, www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/apr/03/jailed-for-using-grindr-hom osexuality-in-egypt.

  15. Park, Yong Jin.(2015).“Do men and women differ in privacy? Gendered privacy and (in)equality in the Internet”, Computers in Human Behavior, 50.10.1016/j.chb.2015.04.011, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275365626_Do_men_and_women_differ_in_privacy_Gendered_privacy_and_inequality_in_the_Internet.