Every human being is to a degree subject to corporate and government surveillance. But, as research conducted by the Privacy International Network shows, there is a uniqueness to the surveillance faced by women, trans and gender queer people. 

Understanding this experience means shedding light on the inextricable ties between surveillance, patriarchy and other systems of oppression, which rely on surveillance to retain control and power. But surveillance and data exploitation also need the strict and rigid categories of cis norms and heteronormativity to function. 

Privacy International supports the work of partners in researching issues related to gender and privacy. We also conduct our own research and advocate for the reclaiming of privacy as a right that should empower gender rights activists.

What is the problem?

Issues around gender and privacy are multiple and diverse. This section offers an overview of some of the topics we have been exploring.

Whose privacy are we fighting for when we say we defend the right to privacy? Talking about privacy in the abstract – as if we all benefit from the same rights, as if we are all equal – means taking the risk of defending the rights of only the most privileged ones in society – with privilege coming in different forms from having a voice to be heard to socio-economic status.

The truth is that privacy has not always been on the side of women. When the right to privacy has been defined as protecting the sanctity of homes and the right to be left alone inside our homes, it really was not for the privacy of women. With 137 women reportedly killed every day across the world by a partner or family member and 35 per cent of women worldwide having experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their partner, the phrase “the right to be let alone” takes a dark turn.

But surveillance and data exploitation are equally key issues in understanding mechanism of oppression over women and gender queer people. For instance, patriarchy needs the rigid categorisation of ID systems to impose a binary perspective of gender, welfare programmes participate in the control and constant monitoring of populations in vulnerable situations, data exploitation contributes to the expectation that women should look a certain way and seeks to perpetuate traditional gender roles in society, social surveillance limits the opportunities of women, trans and gender diverse people.

And while patriarchy and systems of oppressions need surveillance, the reverse is true as well. Surveillance and data exploitation are about categorisation. They are about putting individuals in boxes, tagging them so they become easier to process. So, when we carry IDs – with an assigned gender on them – or when we get married – and therefore register our family as a unit in the eyes of the state – we become processable.

In a world where decision-making led by artificial intelligence will more and more influence our lives and our chances to get job, to access healthcare or for our behaviours to be monitored, and where the internet of things is breaching the divide between the internet and the physical world, women, trans and gender diverse people will be confronted to patriarchal oppression in even more pervasive way then they already are. 

What is the solution?

It is essential that those fighting for gender equality reclaim the right to privacy. Privacy should be part of their toolbox. It should be the right that allows us to have agency, to control our identity, to speak our mind safely and securely, the right to express ourselves without having a name and face attached to what we say, the right that prevents others from sharing images of us without our consent.

But privacy is also about bodily autonomy. It is the right that – in the US – allowed women to access abortion. It should also be the right that allows us to explore our sexual identity, like in India where privacy – once recognised as a fundamental right in the constitution – allowed the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
It is time for a reclaiming of privacy that will empower women, trans and gender diverse people.
It is time for privacy to become a tool to smash patriarchy and so it’s time to ask ourselves what privacy will look like in a post-patriarchal world.

What PI is doing

Privacy International produces new research on the topic of gender, surveillance and technology. As well as producing our own research we also support the research conducted by our network of partner organisations on those very issues.

Privacy International also engages with organisations working on the frontline to support women and gender queer individuals across the world. From issues of sexual reproductive rights to domestic violence and others, we are here to provide support and resources on a wide range of issues to feminist organisations working on gender rights.