3 reasons why surveillance and digital privacy are feminist issues

Digital surveillance is a feminist issue and a feminist study of surveillance is necessary to place those that face most discrimination at the centre of the discourse about digital privacy, says Lainie Yeoh

We live in a world of data. Data is information that we analyse to gain knowledge and make decisions, like statistics. The default state of experiencing the internet these days is to be under surveillance. Surveillance in digital spaces refers to the monitoring and policing of those occupying digital spaces, and it affects free speech and privacy. Contemporary surveillance practices are to a large extent underpinned by a ‘collect it all logic’ — meaning, if you ever request for your data from any given platform (and manage to obtain it), you may be surprised by how many digital versions of yourself exist as data in other people’s control

Here are 3 reasons you need think about data surveillance and the right to privacy through a feminist lens:

Social justice issues.

Privacy and data rights are especially important for the marginalized. The right to privacy from a gender perspective is particularly important, as access to digital platforms may be problematic for women and gender diverse people facing patriarchal dynamics online and offline. Issues emerging from a gender perspective include lack of agency and control over data, unequal power dynamics, loss of privacy, and discrimination and bias at the intersection of race, class and gender.

Thinking critically about surveillance is important, and involves questioning the inherent underlying power dynamics that underpin it. It also involves moving away from a belief in the objectivity and neutrality of data and algorithms.”

Data feminism acknowledges that oppressive systems of power worldwide also result in data collection, interpretation and usage that is disproportionately dominated by privileged worldviews. In other words: data is not neutral, nor objective. It is subject to all the biases that exist out in the world, and these biases are further enforced when used to make decisions that are put into action.

Intrusive, exploitative, and inaccurate data practices.  

What about data related to your body? Up until 2018, online dating app Grindr (which largely serves queer men) was sharing information about its users’ HIV status with third parties. The Roomba collecting dirt off floors is collecting data on layouts of homes and selling that information to third parties. Fertility and period tracking apps are a privacy nightmare, selling intimate details users store in the app to third parties. Popular location-based game Pokemon Go is, you guessed it, tracking your location data (and gathering other information, including of the infrastructure around you) and selling it to third party advertisers.

Consider how social, institutional and cultural dynamics can skew the supposed objectivity and accuracy assumed of the world of data. In a world of diverse identities containing various genders and sexualities, how do we all fit into the neat and frequently binary boxes of data? What happens when this data is then used in decisions that affect us, like public health, welfare access, to measure participation, or control populations?

Surveillance takes many forms.

The critical feminist perspective on surveillance, draws attention to a wide range of de-facto surveillance – beyond CCTV footage. The mundane forms of everyday surveillance need to be brought into this discussion. Feminist Surveillance Studies highlight how  fertility screenings, birth certificates, and police photos of domestic violence  contribute to racialized, gendered, and sexualized technologies of surveillance, alongside methods formally considered as surveillance. Feminist perspectives of surveillance are thus important – because they add necessary perspectives to how we think about technology, data, and surveillance. 

Digital surveillance is a feminist issue. A feminist approach to surveillance places marginalised communities, those that are most at targeted by discrimination and patriarchal structures — at the centre of discourse around privacy and surveillance. 

 Illustrations by Sonaksha Iyengar.

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3 reasons why surveillance and digital privacy are feminist issues

by Lainie Yeoh Reading time: 3 min