This year, Australia is going to grapple with long-overdue reform of the federal Privacy Act. The law was originally passed in 1988, and while it endeavours to cast a wide net by being principles-based and technology-agnostic, the flaws in its antiquated thinking are really beginning to show. With the opportunity to renegotiate what privacy looks like in Australia, now feels like a great time to examine the relationship between privacy and power, and how protecting it is an essential part of twenty-first-century intersectional feminism.
What is privacy anyway?
Privacy is notoriously difficult to define. As a non-fixed social construct, its meaning and value ebbs and flows over time, as well as vary strongly from person to person. Without political context to make the term less slippery, the abstract nature of privacy can also be manipulated to mean something different to what many might expect. For example, when a company such as Facebook declares ‘we care about your privacy’ (in spite of having demonstrated otherwise time and time again), it uses the indefinable quality of privacy to meet its own agenda. In many ways, this is similar to the concept of ‘freedom’ or ‘liberation’ where, as feminism has discovered over the years, the malleability of the term is part of the challenge.
For some, privacy might mean making sure the nudes you took stay out of the cloud and away from prying eyes. For others, it means being able to control the information about you that is out in the world, perhaps by making decisions about what others can see on social media. Further still, for many it’s about keeping yourself safe: being able to protect yourself from stalkers, abuse, and other forms of harm such as doxxing.
But privacy also has a more political side, and it concerns power.
As governments and private companies accumulate masses of our data, the existing power imbalance between us and them grows larger. The impact of such mass collection of personal information is about more than just being able to see what people are up to: it’s also about how that data is used, manipulated, and the inferences that are made about it, which in turn impact how we experience the world.
We have already seen what happens when ethical data handling and privacy are not taken seriously. It is the world of Cambridge Analytica and manipulation of democratic processes on a mass scale. It is the world of facial recognition surveillance and predictive policing disproportionately harming Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples. It is a world of Big Tech platforms sharing your personal information with your abuser.
Reclaiming privacy enables us to take some power back. It allows us to maintain a level of autonomy and dignity in a world where, increasingly, everything is knowable and traceable.
The evolving relationship between privacy and feminism
One of the defining features of second-wave feminism was a breakdown of the public-private divide. Prior to this, public and private spheres of life in western societies were highly gendered: the private home life being the domain of women, and the public life of men. In the late 60s, a greater emphasis was placed on the connection between personal experience and larger societal and political structures, under the rallying cry ‘the personal is political’. As well as questioning prescribed gender norms, the movement also insisted on shining a light on things that happened in the private sphere of the home, such as marital rape or abuse.
A call to protect privacy is not a desire to return to a time in which it can be used again as a weapon against women. Modern ideas of privacy are about self-determination, autonomy and dignity, all of which are vital in the fight for women’s liberation, and not a call to hide abusive behaviour from view.
Protecting privacy as resistance
Feminism should always question power, and any view of privacy that is not limited to data breaches, privacy policies and legal compliance also demands that we rigorously question power structures and how information flows through them.
Technology is so integral to our lives that personal data processing has become ubiquitous and, as Soshanna Zuboff highlighted in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, part of the problem is that we have become used to thinking of these practices as inevitable.
There is a cultural tendency to regard privacy as the technologically necessary price we must pay for all the things we’ve grown to love (or have been manipulated into not being able to do without). So what’s the point in resisting? The fight is over, and privacy is dead. A similar sense of inevitability permeates other issues that feminism grapples with, as many people still believe socialised gender norms are the ‘natural’ way of things.
When we blame individuals for ‘giving up’ their privacy, we are engaging in a form of victim-blaming that ignores the power dynamics at play, displacing the burden of responsibility onto individuals. Feminists are better placed than most to recognize this spurious logic.
Protecting privacy as intersectional harm reduction
Women have been policed for their virtue for centuries. Until very recently, women were perceived as having no right to privacy when it came to their sexual life. While it may seem that we are beginning to move away from this, we need look no further than how sex workers (and by some extension, those in the sex-positive movement more broadly) continue to be disproportionately policed. Sex workers are routinely deplatformed, censored and discriminated against online, making privacy and digital security of utmost importance to sex worker communities. The right to privacy is the natural aim of a movement of feminists who are keen to resist patriarchal power structures which seek to control and limit women’s autonomy.
Privacy has also been vital in the history of LGBTQ+ rights. Privacy-invasive laws and policies have been used to oppress and stigmatise people based on their sexuality and gender expression for decades. For example, LGBTQ+ individuals in the US were subject to immense amounts of surveillance, and were systematically removed from public servant roles due to fear and stigma of ‘sexual perversion’. Privacy and anonymity have, and continue to be, a necessary tool of survival for many in the LGBTQ+ community.
The experience of privacy is different for Black and Indigenous communities and People of Colour, who are subject to excessive surveillance compared to white people. As abolitionist Mariame Kaba has remarked: ‘these violations span centuries for Black people, and are one reason for a racial disconnect in discussions about privacy and civil liberties. Black people have always been under the gaze of the state.’ The link between surveillance and the police state feeds directly into the prison industrial complex, disproportionately harming marginalised communities.
These systems of oppression are increasingly enabled by technologies such as facial recognition, digital surveillance and automated decision-making algorithms. Policies of data retention and anti-encryption further entrench the harm caused by privacy-invasive technologies. Restricting the collection, use, storage and sharing of our personal information is a vital part of reducing the harm of these technologies across intersections. Core privacy ideals like transparency and accountability are also essential for creating more ethical systems. Sounds feminist to me.
Protecting privacy as respecting boundaries
It is no coincidence that we’re having simultaneous discussions about consent in both digital rights spaces and feminist circles. The overarching goals are the same: respect, boundaries and agency over access to the self. Be it your physical or digital self, the desire to have power to determine who gains access to ourselves and under which circumstances is a space that privacy advocates and feminists both inhabit.
The current approach to consent to the use of our personal information is a one-way transaction. Anyone who has had a long Terms of Service thrust in front of them and been required to click an ‘I agree’ box understands that this consent is not meaningful.
Around the world, privacy advocates are calling out companies and governments for treating ‘consent’ as a way to shift the burden of responsibility away from them and onto individuals. Meanwhile, feminists are having important conversations about the importance of being able to revoke consent and coming up with frameworks for respectful ways to communicate preferences and boundaries in sexual contexts and beyond. Imagine the things each community could learn from each other if we were to coordinate more freely between us.
Protecting privacy as a political act of community care
Privacy is often seen as a personal rather than collective issue, and much of privacy law reflects this by focusing on how individuals can exercise choice and control over how their personal information is handled. But what if protecting privacy were not just about you? You may not have had an abortion but respect the rights of others to do so privately. Or you may not be queer but respect the rights of others to decide to keep their sexuality private from whomever they choose. The point is: people will legitimately have things they want to hide, and we can all agree that there are many circumstances where those reasons are entirely valid. In this sense, we can see defending the right to privacy as an act of solidarity.
Besides, what if we consider the collective social value of protecting privacy?
Privacy has value as a public good in that it is a vital ingredient to a thriving democracy, and assists in upholding other rights and freedoms such as speech and association. In a similar vein, the value of feminism goes beyond improving the lives of individuals: its collective value lies in building a more just and equitable society. Many believe that feminism is not for them in a similar way that many feel they don’t need privacy, and yet they will continue to benefit from both.
The civil rights movement, the union movement or the movement for women’s liberation would never have been able to exist without the ability to maintain a level of privacy. Not only does constant surveillance make it difficult for activists to push for meaningful change when those in power do not agree with the movement goals – it also creates an environment of self-policing, censorship and conformity.
When we fight to uphold privacy, we are creating protected spaces for one another within our communities. When we take steps to protect the privacy of ourselves and others, we are creating an environment of community care and resilience.
Protecting privacy as an opportunity for feminism in the digital age
The intersections between privacy, surveillance and feminism have been interrogated by interdisciplinary academics and a growing number of forward-thinking technologists and digital rights activists. But it’s time for mainstream feminism to understand the role that privacy plays in the societal and technological systems of power we wish to re-imagine, and for privacy advocates to benefit from the ways a feminist lens can enrich how we think about data and technology. Gone are the days of privacy being the domain of the paranoid, or an area that is only accessible to technologists, lawyers or academics. With the imminent review of the Privacy Act in Australia, we have a vital opportunity to reinvigorate privacy as an essential tool for modern-day feminism to examine and redistribute power, protect human rights, and overall act in solidarity with each other in the face of invasive, data-hungry companies and governments.
Image by Kirill Sharkovski
Samantha Floreani is a digital rights activist currently working with Digital Rights Watch.