Women in the digital age: Surveillance culture and data

Women in the digital age: Surveillance culture and data
Table Of Contents

It's Women's History Month, and we’re proud of the major strides women are making in the fight for equality. But we also want to take the opportunity to shed some light on a women’s rights issue that rarely seems to be addressed: online privacy

With the growth of digital and mobile technology, surveillance culture has permeated our everyday lives like never before. Facial recognition, social media, and data mining are all technological innovations that seem to make our lives easier. But they also put our privacy at risk and can disproportionately affect women’s privacy rights.

From workplace discrimination to monitoring software used on phones and computers to the data collected by your favorite app, the threat of having your private information compromised is very real — especially when you're a woman. So this month, let's look at how surveillance culture affects women and other marginalized groups and what measures can be taken by all genders to protect their right to privacy.

Cyberviolence and its effects

It's time to face the cyber-music: cyberviolence against women is a real and damaging problem. Before we can even think about safeguarding women's privacy online, it helps to explore the magnitude of cyberbullying, hate speech, cyberstalking, sextortion, and other cyber crimes women are disproportionately subjected to daily. 

Don’t believe it when we say women have it worse online? Take a look at these statistics from the Council of Europe:

  • 58% of girls have experienced online harassment
  • 50% said they experience more online harassment than street harassment
  • 46% of women who had experienced online abuse or harassment said it was misogynistic or sexist

Furthermore, statistics released by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that 73% of women are abused online worldwide. More than half (52%) of the women polled disagree with this statement: “The Internet is a safe place to express my opinions.”

This kind of cyberviolence not only inflicts psychological wounds but also deprives women of their right to express themselves freely and without fear, thus weakening their participation in various fields such as politics and culture.

Cyberviolence also contains an extra layer of risk for other already vulnerable groups: women of color, minority religions, and members of the LGBTQ community. For example, Black women stand an astonishing 84% greater chance of being subjected to abusive tweets on Twitter compared to their white counterparts.

In short, this cyber plague has unleashed a wave of fear in the digital universe and will require an equally potent force to abolish it. However, admitting we have a problem is the first step. 

Silencing and censoring women online

Women have an undeniably powerful presence online; with soaring platform numbers, female-identifying individuals are louder and more visible than ever before. However, what’s at risk of going unnoticed is female censorship online. 

You might have seen it if you've ever stumbled upon an article sharing an opinion deemed too feminist, scrolling to the comments section and seeing the dialogue riddled with gender shaming, or simply disregarding female viewpoints in favor of male-sanctioned opinion.

Censoring female bodies

It’s no secret that we tend to censor female bodies differently than male bodies. This is incredibly evident in how we censor female nipples versus male nipples (which, by the way, is about to change).

It’s also glaringly obvious in how we censor the female body in general, as was the case when TechCrunch analyzed Instagram’s “sexually suggestive” content restrictions. Their analysis proved that, when it comes to female morality, it's not what they do but how they look that's deemed inappropriate. Sorry for just … existing?

Whether singing, dancing, or simply enjoying the sun, women apparently can't win when expressing their bodily autonomy without being met with untoward judgment. However, in the context of modern-day online shaming and cyber abuse, society has a way of censoring women online by bullying them into silence.

Censoring female voices

Diane Abbott, UK Politician, and Shadow Home Secretary, told Amnesty International, “There are many women, and many women of color, who don’t participate online in the way they would want to because of online abuse.”

Here, Abbott was speaking about the toxicity of Twitter.The platform's inadequate response to violence and abuse towards women is effectively silencing them online. Instead of enriching their conversations and experiences, it has led many women to self-censor what they post, limit or change their interactions on the app, or drive them away from it entirely. 

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by Regina Geo — er, social media trolls.

While it might seem comical to some, this type of silencing can have devastating consequences for younger users, those from marginalized communities, and generations to come, who deserve freedom of expression just as much as anyone else.

Whether it's corporate entities trying to keep things “family-friendly” or social censorship gone awry, female bodies and those who live in them have never been given a fair shake on the web. Even the tools used to survey and censor women online tend to skew more in favor of patriarchal dominance than female empowerment.

Are surveillance tools gender-biased?

Aside from Andrew Tate-like trolls and body shamers, what does this type of gender-biased surveillance look like on a systematic level? One of the most recent examples of the dangers of surveying women’s private online data is period tracking apps in the post-Roe v. Wade climate.

Period-tracking apps

Underneath their sleek aesthetic and snappy advertising slogans, period-tracking apps reveal an impressive trove of data points. Joining the proverbial dots for 43 million Flo users, and 12 million Clue users, the apps draw a picture of personal (and very private) health.

A period tracker records otherwise private biological moments — such as when your period stops and starts or when a pregnancy might begin — allowing those with periods to make informed decisions about our bodies that wouldn't otherwise be available. However, in today’s digital age, they can also serve as a barometer for local authorities to understand abortion.

For Evan Greer, the director of Fight for the Future, period tracking apps aren’t the only way technology can connect someone with abortions. According to Greer, even if someone is in the waiting room of an abortion clinic playing a game on their phone, the app could collect location data. She emphasizes that any app looking into sensitive health or body information should be cautiously viewed and used.

Reinforcing patriarchal dominance

In the past, it was even easier to police women, their bodies, and their behavior. Remember, it’s only been slightly over 100 years since women were legally allowed to vote in the United States; women in France couldn’t vote until 1945. Reports from The World Bank note that women in half of the world are still denied land and property rights.The internet’s changed that quite a bit. Now, women can occupy public spaces; they can easily amplify their voices and opinions with the click of a button or swipe of a finger.

However, it’s not all good vibes and #girlpower. The availability of technology like the internet has been both liberating and oppressing for those female voices who have been quashed by centuries of sexism, violence, and patriarchal control.

For example, female journalists in Pakistan face a deluge of gendered surveillance from the state, private actors, and public audiences. This exhausting cycle often involves sexualized threats that attempt to strip female journalists of their right to freedom of expression. Even when women do get the chance to speak up, they’re ridiculed for being overdramatic, emotional, and untruthful.

Patriarchal dominance continues to loom over every digital corner, no matter how much emancipation technology promises. Though the internet can be a powerful tool for connections and innovations, it also enables sexist behavior under the cloak of anonymity — a double-edged sword if there ever was one.

Why this matters

The point is that online surveillance tools can take a woman's data and use it to make wildly accurate assumptions about what she might be up to. Even if the data they track in female-focused apps isn’t potentially incriminating, it’s still sold to advertisers for targeted, predatory advertising. 

This happened back in 2012 when Target developed an algorithm to predict when a woman might be pregnant so they could send them coupons for pregnancy-related products.

Needless to say, online surveillance tools seem to have a gender bias — harping on the female experience too often, thus creating an unequal playing field that could be, in the current political climate we live in, life-threatening, incriminating, and discriminatory.

Is this “just part of being online?”

Dismissing cyberviolence against women as a "part of being online" is akin to throwing in the towel. It implies that we must accept that cyber hatred will remain the norm and that it’s up to us as individuals to protect ourselves against it the best we can. Unfortunately, exposure to such claims contributes directly to increased violent tendencies against women, and reducing cyber violence and hate against women is essential to ending gender-based violence overall. Research shows that when men and boys hold “violence-supportive beliefs and values,” their likelihood of engaging in coercive or violent behavior with women rises substantially. And let’s not forget; this isn’t just an issue that affects women today. Taking a stand against cyber hate and striving to make all corners of the internet safe is about protecting future generations, too.

The empowerment of women through data privacy

Until we all live in a society where violent beliefs and values aren’t an issue, there are some baby steps we can take today. Whether online or in real life, anonymity is one lever women can use to protect themselves — the main idea being: “They can’t hurt me if they don’t know who I am.” In this context, investing in data privacy can be an powerful tool for empowering women, giving them the security and confidence to share their stories, experiences, and opinions with the world. We’ve included a selection of resources at the end of this article to help anyone get started with protecting their own online data privacy.

As we all venture into this new future together, let us remember data privacy and its role in empowering all members of our global community — especially women.

Learn more about female data privacy rights and issues

For more resources regarding how governments and entities survey and censor women online, read through these helpful articles:

To learn how to protect yourself and your data online, view these resources:

And finally, here are a few organizations that are doing great work regarding protecting women and their data privacy online:

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