Women being watched by cameras

Women and online privacy: Understanding the privacy paradox

9 minutes to read
Rebecca de Jongh

To many of us, the internet is a place for entertainment, knowledge and keeping up with friends and family. Yet, some among us, especially women, find that surfing the web can lead to uncomfortable - or even dangerous - situations. The privacy paradox refers to the fact that, while we want to safeguard our privacy online, we end up actually sharing a lot. What happens to women when they face this?

Imagine leaving a particularly abusive relationship and changing your whole life in order to move on. Believing you’re now safe from your ex, you still take some precautions, so you avoid using your full name online. You blog under different names, hide away as best you can. Then suddenly, against all odds, you receive an e-mail from your ex on an account that should be near impossible to find.

It’s what happened to queer feminist Soudeh Rad. Her ex-husband managed to find her, even though all her new e-mail address contained was her first name (Rad, 2018). Park (2015) finds that privacy is a central component to our everyday interactions as human beings. It is defined as the individual's ability to be able to reveal self and selves selectively. (Park, 2015) Clearly, in this scenario, Rad did not have this ability. It is hard to say whether men don’t face equal risk of having their privacy being breached in such a way. After all, in a lot of ways, men and women sail through cyberspace in the same leaky boat. There is no guarantee that one’s privacy is a hundred percent protected while browsing social media or the web in general (Allen, 2000). Yet, the consequences of one’s privacy being invaded for a woman may differ when compared to a man.

Soudeh Rad telling her story at Mozfest 2018.

Cyberstalking and women's surveillance

As we saw in the case of Soudeh Rad, one of the biggest consequences of privacy violations for women especially is cyberstalking. Cyberstalking has never been easier, because we tend to  give our data away for free – sometimes even willingly. Something as small as liking a post on Facebook gives off a plethora of information about us. Earlier research has found that Facebook likes can be used to predict sensitive personal attributes, such as ethnicity, religious and political views, sexual orientation, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, age, parental separation and gender (Mathiyalakan, Heilman, & White, 2014). Other problems women (and other genders except men) may face online are discrimination by other users, exclusion from virtual spaces, extortion and exposure to sexual content and images (Odeh, 2018). Although these are important topics to discuss, for the purpose of this paper the main focus will be on cyberstalking and surveillance.

After all, in a lot of ways, men and women sail through cyberspace in the same leaky boat.

According to Odeh (2018), one of the reasons gender-based violence is so prevalent online is that the virtual space mirrors the violence in public – offline – space. The Feminist Principles of the internet echo this idea. As they put it: “The internet is a space where social norms are negotiated, performed and imposed, often in an extension of other spaces shaped by patriarchy and heteronormativity” (Association of Progressive Communications, 2016).

The authors of the same document go on to say that a historical tool of the patriarchy is surveillance. Surveillance is used to control and restrict women’s bodies, speech and activism. As we saw before, a key aspect of privacy is the ability to reveal and conceal ourselves however we want. In a study in which Palestinian women were asked about their experiences online, many women found that they didn’t feel comfortable expressing themselves as they would like (Odeh, 2018). An important element here was that a lot of these women felt that they were being closely watched by their families. A simple solution might seem to reject family members' friendship requests on social media. Yet, rejecting such requests turned out to not be an option:

In other words, accepting friend requests is not optional, it is by force and does not necessarily stem from woman and girl’s desire to introduce their virtual life to their family. Allen explained in return: ‘Sometimes having them [as friends] is better, it means I am not doing anything wrong. However, they keep asking questions like, “Who is this, who liked your post, who commented on it, how do you know them, etc.”” (Odeh, 2018)

A woman from Ramallah added that having parents on social media meant rethinking what you post, what you write and what photos you decide to share. Though it wasn’t just family that made these women wary of posting photos. Posting a selfie could result in unwanted comments or a level of cyberstalking aimed at gaining access to these women’s lives. For instance, one strategy involves repeatedly sending friend requests and messages until the woman gives in. This complex privacy situation has become more complex due to new surveillance and tracking technologies such as mySpy35, Teen Safe and Family Tracker, which allow family members (or others) to track calls, texts and social media. These applications identify the locations of users and even their phone numbers.

Digital literacy and the privacy paradox

So then what is it that makes it so difficult for women specifically to protect themselves against a breach of privacy? Some research suggests that women don’t always have the digital literacy skills that would help them protect themselves and their privacy (as compared to men). As Yong Jin Park puts it:

Important differences, especially in terms of data protection and release, may lie in how attitudes to the Internet and the sophistication of skill differ by gender, taking into account socializing factors that may be relevant for understanding how different groups are equipped to manage personal privacy (Hargittai & Shafer, 2006; Hargittai & Litt, 2013).” (Park, 2015)

Weinberger, Zhitomirsky-Geffet and Bounik (2017) partially agree although they do have their reservations. In their study, they found that it is perhaps not a distinct gap in ability, but rather the fact that women perceive themselves as lacking the necessary skills to protect themselves (Weinberger, Zhitomirsky-Geffet, & Bouhnik, 2017). In other words, it’s not so much a lack in ability as it is a lack of confidence. Further, the researchers note that increasing literacy levels when it comes to online privacy is important to bridge the gap between privacy attitudes and to help eradicate the privacy paradox. The privacy paradox here refers to the fact that, although women seem to be more concerned about their privacy, they also end up sharing more personal information online than men do. It is important to note here that it was found that women (78% of women as compared to 63% of men) don’t share crucial personal information, such as their phone numbers or email addresses, as much as men do (Murnane, 2016). Men, on the other hand, have been found to share their data willingly in exchange for convenience or reward (Park, 2015).

A key aspect of privacy is the ability to reveal and conceal ourselves however we want.

A potential explanation for this paradox could be that women aren’t always aware of the risk they might be facing online. As mentioned before, the online world can potentially reflect what is happening offline, yet some women treat the internet as an isolated place for "chat and nonsense" (Odeh, 2018). The idea here is that knowledge could protect women from unintentionally exposing themselves in ways they did not intend. Interestingly, another study found that, despite the privacy paradox, once a woman has experienced a breach of privacy, she is more likely to change her attitudes in order to prevent future problems (Murnane, 2016).

Empowering exhibitionism

This need to hide from prying eyes could be explained by what Koskela (2004) calls the regime of order and the regime of shame. The regime of order can be explained as the way society regulates its citizens. For women, this could mean an imperative to dress modestly, for instance. The regime of shame is the result of the given order; it is what "keeps people meek and obedient" (Koskela, 2004). In turn, this shame is what gives people the need for privacy. That which is shameful must be hidden away. Anita L. Allen (2000) argues that this is the wrong kind of privacy, and there seems to be too much of it. She claims that women often have too much privacy in the sense of imposed modesty, chastity, and domestic isolation and not enough privacy where it matters. As a result, these women may lack opportunities for enacting individual modes of privacy and private choice (Allen, 2000).

After her misadventure, Soudeh Rad acted along this line of thinking. Although her privacy was invaded in a rather critical way, Rad decided enough was enough. She would no longer hide:

So I started to speak out and tell who I am, tell everyone who I am. And to not be afraid to say ‘Yeah, I’m a victim, a survivor, someone who has experienced abusive relationships and domestic violence.’” (Rad, 2018)

She now openly advocates for queer and feminist rights and is the president of Feminist Spectrum. To become the subject instead of the object as Rad has done by coming forward about this issue is what Koskela (2004) refers to as "empowering exhibitionism". What Rad is essentially doing is reclaiming the copyright to her own life. Exposing oneself in this way can lead to empowerment, but it can also lead to self-disclosure. Women who show themselves willingly on the internet could be scrutinized and even blamed for the potential harassment they receive.

This patterns of blaming women was exposed in the case of Lindsay Mills. When Edward Snowden exposed the NSA’s darkest secrets, his girlfriend Lindsay Mills partially paid the cost. Mills kept a blog about her life and occasionally posted photos of herself. As Snowden fled the country, The New York Times Magazine turned their attention to Mills and wrote a human-interest story under its headline: "Edward Snowden’s Girlfriend Is a Pole-Dancing Acrobat with a Dramatic Blog". This is where the regime of control comes into play. Those in power (The New York Times Magazine as a mainstream media outlet in this instance) deemed her to be immodest. And she was blamed for it all:

Her artistic self-portraits in her underwear made her an eccentric sex symbol - after all, she put her body out into the online world. It did not seem to matter that the self-portraits showed Mills using her own body as a canvas. Instead, the images were used to communicate something more lurid and portray her as a sex worker, someone she was not.” (Babcock, Freivogel, & Whitehouse, 2015)

Women at a crossroads

As we have seen, navigating the internet as a woman can be tricky. Not only are women subject to harassment online, but they may also not be able to hide from those who intend to harm them - or even from their families, due to the increasing use of tracking applications. This does not necessarily mean that women need to hide, as exposure could also lead to empowerment. After all, hiding away may lead to the wrong kind of privacy (Allen, 2000). Take for instance, Rad’s decision to expose herself as a victim of abuse. By doing so, she took away the power from her ex-husband and from anyone else who sought to invade her privacy. At the same time, if a woman doesn’t want to expose herself, gaining the right tools to protect herself might also do the trick. As Weinberger and colleagues (2017) state, it all begins with confidence as societal norms may cause women to feel they do not have the same skillset as men to protect themselves.

When it comes to online privacy, women find themselves at a crossroads where exposure could lead to empowerment or to added scrutiny. Initiatives such as The Feminist Principles of the Internet are trying to reinforce the empowerment side of things, yet being able to navigate online spaces without scrutiny or gender-based violence may still come at a price. For now.



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