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International Women's Day: How surveillance is used to assert control

A woman passes by mock surveillance cameras in a shop window in Zurich, Switzerland, 17 September 2008
A woman passes by mock surveillance cameras in a shop window in Zurich, Switzerland, 17 September 2008

AP Photo/Keystone, Alessandro Della Bella

This statement was originally published on privacyinternational.org on 6 March 2015.

By Claire Lauterbach

This Sunday is International Women's Day. You could celebrate the considerable progress in legislating for women's equal rights. You could join a protest against political and legal inequality, discrepancies in women's access to healthcare, education and other social goods. You could thank your mom for delivering you.

Here at Privacy International, we want to commemorate the importance of this day by looking at some of the ways surveillance technologies can be used to control women and how the fight for women's equal rights and for privacy have more in common than you might think.

Say it with spyware

What could £40 get your favourite lady? Maybe a couple dozen roses? How about a one-month subscription to FlexiSpy to track her at all times?

FlexiSpy is a startlingly invasive piece of commercial spy software to track a target's phone, capturing call, SMS data uploaded to an online account for viewing. It is actually specifically marketed for spouses to install on their partner's phone to find out if they are being unfaithful. It boasts that you can "Always Know...What they're seeing... What they're hearing...What they're saying...What they're doing." Not only does it invade a loved one's privacy, it plays on our worst fears by giving "complete monitoring control."

Of course, women can use this product to target their partners, and FlexiSpy is one of the dozens of commercially available spy gadgets out there. But its marketing hits on an important point when it comes to surveillance - control, specifically, complete control and power over another.

The United Nations defines violence against women as "a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women" and that "violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men." It calls out by name "physical, sexual and psychological violence" in the family, general community and as perpetrated or condoned by the State.

Surveillance's effect on the psyche has been long documented. So when it comes to a man having the power to spy on a woman, the control is not only exerted over that specific woman but falls in line with historical and systemic issues of unequal power relations between men and women.

Last October, the High Court in Lahore, Pakistan accepted to hear the plea of a woman who accused her husband of installing a tracking device in her body. Sughran Bibi alleged that her husband with an accomplice had affixed a tracking device inside her as she lay unconscious, chloroformed. She pointed to other classic signs of abuse - her husband had been blackmailing her - and brought X-rays to prove her point that a tracking device had been inserted.

In Saudi Arabia, communications providers notified male relatives or 'guardians' by SMS of whenever their wives or other 'dependents' left or arrived in the country. The automatic system prompted an outcry both in and out of the country where women are still legal minors.

In case we are tempted to think that this only happens in certain countries with discriminatory laws or where women are less likely to control household incomes: it doesn't.

The same technologies that are used around the world to track your pizza delivery are also used by abusive partners to keep tight control of their targets. These are usually and overwhelmingly women. A December 2014 study by UK-based Digital-Trust quoted domestic violence counsellors and victims' accounts of stalking by way of GPS trackers, smartphone spyware, bugs and hacking. A series of parliamentary answers revealed that UK police received over 10,000 reports of computers being compromised by spyware and malware (malicious software) in one year. In parallel, researchers have demonstrated that digital abuse frequently accompanies other forms of domestic violence.

Control is the bottom line


At Privacy International, we're usually busy keeping tabs on spying by governments around the world, including the activities of GCHQ, the NSA and their Five Eyes partners, looking to develop mass surveillance systems or use powerful spyware to intimidate their supposed opponents.

At the heart of those issues, and of the surveillance cases mentioned above, is the same principle: that surveillance is about control. The interpersonal, tech-enabled spying described above results mainly from the popularisation of surveillance as a legitimate way of engaging with another human being, and the unequal economic, political and social status women still overwhelmingly occupy to varying degrees worldwide. Or, more precisely, the many obstacles to addressing those problems that - from lack of political will to educational inequality, to health inequality - are too numerous to discuss here. The fact that globally we still even legislate for women's, rather than men's, inclusion in various benefits like equal pay is the strongest evidence that exclusion is still the default.

Men can and do have their privacy invaded. Technologies like FlexiSpy, can clearly be targeted at men. There are also particularly strong stigmas that prevent men from reporting domestic violence - including the invasive surveillance and stalking that is commonly associated with it.

While surveillance of anyone, no matter their gender, is problematic, the surveillance of women by men reinforces existing power imbalances.

Take, for example, Girls Around Me. The winner if not a strong contender in the unofficial 'creepiest app' awards, the program detects women who, by voluntarily sharing their GPS location data with social media app Foursquare, 'check in' to locations like restaurants and cinemas in a user's neighborhood.

Girls Around Me does what it says on the tin: displays a list of local ladies, helpfully geocoded, and potentially any data on their social media pages. It's not surveillance, per se, but definitely a privacy-invasive use of consumer data according to Foursquare. Girls Around Me is called that for a reason, though technically a user can search for both men and women - maybe if only to give its mostly male users favourable "guy-to-girl ratios".

Not all of these latest technologies are surveillance technologies; but all are invasions of the right to human right to privacy. For instance, it is overwhelmingly the explicit private images of women that former intimate partners post against their wishes to 'revenge porn' websites. This latest development in tech-enabled sexism continues a long history of literally stripping bare women's right to control how and why their bodies are displayed.

Personal, political privacy

The right to privacy is conceived of as a protection against potential abuses by the state. Yet state surveillance, too, when its target is a woman, often takes a specific gendered form. Security agents who spied on Colombian journalist Claudia Duque and her communications were instructed to threaten to abduct and rape her daughter; a high-ranking official was convicted of Duque's 'psychological torture' late last year. Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, noted for her high-level investigations into government corruption, had several of her explicit photographs sent to her in the post with a letter calling her a 'whore' and telling her to 'behave' (an unfortunately frequent demand of 'troublemaking' women). An explicit video of Ismayilova allegedly recorded by hidden camera was posted online when she refused to desist. Azerbaijani authorities are currently detaining Ismayilova on vague charges.

"The personal is political" - to repeat the feminist adage. Privacy is both. The idea that 'a man's home is his castle', an early manifestation of the right to privacy based on preserving (traditionally men's) property rights and protecting against undue scrutiny, has been used to deny women safety from domestic abuse in their own homes. Women can and should reclaim the 'right to privacy' to guard against unwanted intrusion into their lives to give them ultimate control over their information, bodies, and lives.

Surveillance technologies are impersonal in the way they operate but surveillance can be conducted against women to specifically target them as such, whether by an angry lover or an angrier state. Physical and digital surveillance and harassment of women thrives because monitoring others' daily lives is widely accepted as as a legitimate practice or at least 'not that bad' - we do voluntarily forklift loads of our data into social media sites - and because of the overt or implied desire to control women or at least view them as auxiliary to men (see: all of human history).

As privacy advocates, we can at least work on one side of the equation. Happy International Women's Day - now go call your mother.

For more information regarding women and technology, check out these links:

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