The gender of surveillance: how the world can work together for a safer internet

You can’t get online for a week, a month, or a year. When you do get online, your internet access is restricted to a small number of sites or apps that are “free” — because your real payment is easy corporate or government access to your private data. When you publish your opinions, you get harassed right away. And because your privacy is not protected, these threats can easily follow you into the real world.

That’s what the internet is like for many people around the world, and it’s like that much more often for women than men.

More than half the world still lacks access to the internet. Not everyone has equal opportunity to benefit from the internet’s potential for economic, social, cultural, civic, and political advancement. In two out of every three countries, worldwide, there are more men using the internet than there are women, and in Africa, this gender gap has actually increased since 2013. Once online, women and girls, gender fluid people, and members of LGBTQI communities face significant barriers to full participation. They are surveilled, harrassed, stalked, doxxed, blackmailed, exposed to viral rape videos, victimized by non-consensual sharing of intimate images — which can damage reputations or even provoke “honor” crimes — or become the targets of “revenge pornography,” which forces sexual assault survivors to relive trauma. In some terrifying cases, they are entrapped, arrested, imprisoned, or killed.

World leaders are working through the United Nations to achieve gender equality by 2030, as part of the “Sustainable Development Goals.” Reaching them depends on extending universal, open, and secure access to the global internet. That means dealing with the problem of gendered surveillance and other developments that put everyone who depends on a secure internet at risk of human rights abuse. These include state efforts to develop or implement systems that rely on algorithms, artificial intelligence, and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies without also putting in place sufficient safeguards to protect our privacy and personal data.

In response, on January 26, Access Now coordinated Gendered Surveillance: Identifying Impacts and Innovating to Protect Privacy in the Digital Age. The meeting, co-sponsored by the Permanent Representatives of the Permanent Missions of Brazil and Germany to the United Nations, brought together members of civil society and state delegates in New York to discuss the latest research on gendered surveillance, and to outline the role that various actors can take to better prevent surveillance and mitigate its impacts.

Here’s our recap of the event and a look ahead at next steps for reaching gender equality in 2030 by making the internet more secure and inclusive.

Introduction: what is the impact of gendered surveillance?

After opening remarks by representatives of the Permanent Missions of Brazil and Germany to the U.N., moderator Jennifer Valentino-DeVries of ProPublica invited the speakers to discuss the impact of surveillance and harassment online.

Deborah Brown of the Association for Progressive Communications explained that surveillance often has the goal of control. She highlighted findings from APC’s Global Survey on Sexuality, Rights, and Internet Regulation, which aims to understand how activists who fight for gender, sexuality, and sexual rights around the world use the internet in their work. Most survey-respondents (66%) reported the internet is an “important” or “very important” medium of sexual expression, while three of four (75%) also reported being harassed online. Brown noted the updated Yogyakarta Principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity (YP +10), which include a new principle on The Right to the Enjoyment of Human Rights in Relation to Information and Communication Technologies (Principle 36) and additional state obligations on the right to privacy (Principle 6).

Next, Joana Varon from Coding Rights in Brazil — an organization that aims to “advance the enforcement of human rights in the digital world” — insisted on the need for strong data protection legislation to curb overcollection, non-consensual processing, and unauthorized sharing of user data. She called out apps that track menstrual cycles as well as other health indicators, which can expose women to data exploitation or abuse because they collect substantial amounts of highly sensitive information. Coding Rights has a report prepared for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women that further explores this issue in the context of a broader discussion of gender-based violence online.

The report identifies three pervasive narratives that hide the problem and frustrate attempts at remedy. First is the “trivialization” of online violence, referring to the belief that this form of violence is limited to the online environment, even though the evidence shows that it has real harms, ranging from “self-censorship in social networks to suicide.” A second narrative is to “blame the victim, who then does not feel entitled to complain,” and lastly, “a third discourse tends to minimize the severity of psychological violence.” Coding Rights has identified these narratives, together, as a means of blinding authorities to the problem and thwarting the development of solutions, resulting in reduced access to justice; a lack of awareness among law enforcement and criminal justice officials; inappropriate policies at internet platforms; and a prevailing business model for online services that is based on collecting massive amounts of personal data, a target for attackers.

Dinah PoKempner, the general counsel of Human Rights Watch, highlighted how Muslim men in the United States, among other groups, are unfairly and disproportionately targeted for their gender and other demographic traits. She clarified that civil society should not carry the burden alone of combating harassment and violence, insisting that governments also play a key role. She drew attention to the many tools — beyond legislation — that policymakers can use to reduce unlawful and gendered surveillance. These include: issuing statements; convening stakeholders; funding research and education; and developing norms.

How civil society is fighting back: projects and initiatives

Privacy is an essential enabler for the freedom of expression, and it is key to building the trust of vulnerable and marginalized individuals and communities when they come online. But, in the words of Internet Democracy Project , which researches gendered surveillance, “fighting for stronger privacy protections alone will not be enough” to address the harms of surveillance.

Participants at the gathering pointed to programs and initiatives that help to close the gender digital divide by enhancing digital security, tracking emerging threats to the privacy and safety of particular communities, and offering support through helplines and education.

Access Now’s Peter Micek introduced our own initiatives, including the 24/7 Digital Security Helpline, which provides direct support to at-risk users and organizations globally to strengthen digital security and build capacity in local communities. Our helpline is intentionally reaching out to specific at-risk communities, and looking to help spawn regional and local versions to better serve diverse populations. The Digital Rights Foundation’s Cyber Harassment Helpline is another example of a civil society-run service with specific expertise in combating online harassment.

In addition to the helpline, Access Now’s grants arm funds research on women’s participation online, and our policy and advocacy arms fight for policy to protect people who are especially vulnerable online due to their gender or sexual identity, including fighting for strong encryption, data protection, and rights-respecting digital ID programs.

Micek also raised the issue of lack of diversity in the technology sector, pointing out that it can lead to negative human rights outcomes. Shareholders are raising the stakes, Micek said, citing a proposal the links executive compensation to benchmarks for representation of racial and other groups.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) tracks internet usage statistics and promotes the EQUALS partnership to bridge the gender digital divide. At the event, Ursula Wynhoven, the ITU’s New York liaison, drew attention to the role of men and boys in perpetuating gender-based violence online, and discussed the need to research and promote the role of allies. One such initiative is White Ribbon, a worldwide movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls, and to promote gender equality, healthy relationships, and a new vision of masculinity.

What’s next on the agenda for privacy and gender

This workshop on gendered surveillance took place in the context of other U.N. initiatives on the right to privacy in the digital age. If you or your organization is working on these issues, there are opportunities ahead for civil society participation. In February in Geneva, the U.N. will hold a two-day workshop on privacy that will streamed on the U.N. website. In the spring you can submit to an open consultation on privacy, big data, and open data. In June at the Human Rights Council, there will be a report on violence against women online, and a resolution on the subject. Finally, in the fall, we could see a renewal of the U.N. General Assembly resolution on privacy, which is co-sponsored by Brazil and Germany, among others.