Women’s fight for equality has been a hard and difficult road, and not always straightforward. The suffragette movement in the west began over 100 years ago, but women all over the world are still fighting, in some measure, for equality, for equity, or for equal representation. In the past several years a global movement seems to have coalesced and its pace accelerated, especially with impetus from the #MeToo tag, allowing women to share their stories, connect, and form international communities in unprecedented ways, all thanks to the internet.
Technology, specifically new methods of communication, have completely changed both the global conversation itself and the way that conversation is held in every corner of civilization. More than ever, women are using the interconnectedness of technology to network with each other and build strength through community in order to protect each other and shed light on their struggle – but unequal access to or knowledge of technology still leaves the door open for the possibility to create new victims, rather than empower existing ones.
On the surface, progress looks good, if occasionally halting. Powerful men are losing status and livelihood because of evil acts they’ve committed, some ongoing for years or even decades. People are organizing and demonstrating and making positive change happen, single steps at a time. Those with more sophisticated pop-culture memories may remember an infamous email circulated by a Google employee in 2017 that assaulted the company’s increasing “PC” culture and made many demonstrably false claims about how women function in the workplace, and what they deserve to be compensated with in return. Google fired the employee, and women responded with wry fatigue, a total lack of surprise.
Fast forward to the following year – the end of 2018 saw a massive walkout of tens of thousands of google employees all over the world to protest sexual harassment policy and the “golden parachute” severance package given to a former executive accused of sexual harassment himself. The environment may not have changed much, but the attitudes have – women are taking control. The effects are seen even more drastically in developing countries, where women increasingly have less to lose by speaking up and more to lose by remaining silent. In Sudan, women have transformed facebook groups for local gossip into a massive protest network as part of a much larger protest effort against the government. The current regime is accused of humanitarian abuses, attacking and killing protestors, and the like. Beforehand, networks of women-only Facebook groups existed for women to chat and gossip about daily life, but as the national protest movement has grown, women have appropriated these groups to share personal information and photographs of individual police and government agents who have perpetrated crimes against civilians, using the information to harass and otherwise retaliate against them.
This tactic of singling out offenders, individualizing and removing their mob identity, has been an incredibly successful tool in a more general sense for a nascent movement focused on accountability for offenders and justice for their victims. There is, however, another secret: Facebook has been blocked by the Sudanese government, and these women access the groups through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. In this light, a pattern emerges. In many authoritarian countries, social media is both the nexus through which protests and reactionary events are organized, and also the first internet or communications services to be axed by a government in fear of a larger popular uprising. Given that women’s rights are human rights, the parallels should be obvious. However, the same gendered roadblocks that push women away from tech can create a profound weakness for privacy and security of women everywhere, while depriving them of an indispensable tool.
Neither is this a layman’s sexist assumption – women use the internet more than men, but are less likely to use internet security tools, preferring instead to simply refrain from posting personal information or more tightly controlling their online friend groups. Technology has traditionally been seen as a “boy’s club,” and there are plenty of barriers, both immediate and systematic, for women to overcome, and this is likely partially why women tend to disproportionately shy away from more technologically sophisticated methods of protecting themselves. Hopefully, this will change as culture shifts towards a more egalitarian gender balance, but until then, women can remain vulnerable.
Even famous or powerful women can be just as, if not more vulnerable, than those of lower socioeconomic status when it comes to online privacy. An infamous hack in 2014 exposed thousands of celebrities’ personal photos stored on iCloud, many of an explicit nature. Overnight the privacy of dozens, if not hundreds of women was violated with very little effort. While this act may not appear overtly violent, the kind of psychological damage and irreparable spread of personally identifiable information involved certainly qualifies it as such. And yet, a ‘hack’ it was not: victims were targets of a phishing attack, where a seemingly innocent email encourages the victim to clink on a dangerous link and expose themselves to malicious code that can be used to steal their data – the same kind of attack used to target Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. According to Apple engineers, the attack could have been prevented through the use of fairly simple two-factor authentication.
The aim here is not to blame the victims – far from it. There are sophisticated and fundamentally important tools in the world of internet security that can not only help protect women from violations of privacy and security, but can be used proactively to gain ground in the fight for the rights to safety, equality, and dignity. There are plenty of ways to find out more about the importance of tools like VPNs, identity verification and data encryption, the important thing is to spread awareness and encourage people to make use of it. More equal access to the internet means more power and self-determination for women, especially in developing countries.