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Gender, sexuality and cybersecurity: an online tale

An online rights movement that rejects women turns its back on feminism’s rich tradition of resistance to social control. So what’s going on?

That spirit of performativity you have about your citizenship, now? That sense that someone’s peering over your shoulder, watching everything you do and say and think and choose? That feeling of being observed? It’s not a new facet of life in the twenty-first century. It’s what it feels like for a girl.” —  Madeline Ashby

The remorseless growth of surveillance has long attracted analysis of its gender dimension, both for its innate characteristics and the extent to which, as a mechanism of social control, it reflects the interests of those in control. CCTV unquestionably offers a “male gaze” — the male-dominated security industry and law enforcement sectors constantly monitoring spaces such as shopping precincts and public transport more likely to be used by women, to say nothing of the use of CCTV for voyeuristic purposes. A 1990s British study found women were far more likely to be targeted by CCTV operators for voyeuristic than protective purposes; there are countless instances of male operators using body scanners for voyeurism.

As Ashby notes, of course, women have traditionally constantly been under surveillance whether CCTVs are present or not, their appearance and clothing assessed against socially determined aesthetic criteria, their behaviour assessed against appropriate standards, their reproductive choices monitored and controlled by men.

How much the “male gaze” of CCTV surveillance extends over into online surveillance is worth teasing out. The two areas are hardly separate, of course; rather, the surveillance state has expanded into new areas of our lives as we shift online, and in fact it has become the surveillance economy as corporations as well as governments compile ever more data on us, on even the most intimate and private aspects of our lives.

Gender does in some ways inform this drive to control the internet, to impose “civilisation” and law and order on the lawless online Wild West: this amounts to the re-assertion of the sort of elite control traditionally exercised over western societies, almost invariably by privileged white males, who assume the role of paternalistic guardians of a social order they benefit from, although their control is increasingly under challenge. Control of key cybersecurity related institutions, more so than our political institutions, remains in the hands of privileged white males: the sector is controlled by senior defence personnel, heads of intelligence agencies (only 35% of senior ASIO staff are women; only 3% are from non-English speaking backgrounds), police.

Moreover, the biggest source of voluntary self-exposure to surveillance, Facebook, at least in Australia and the US, is used significantly more by women than men.

But as David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell might admit, the surveillance economy appears not to distinguish between sexes. The relentless accumulation of data on citizens applies to all alike except those who take care to protect themselves.

Just before New Year, Melbourne online activist Asher Wolf posted a long article on her decision to quit the Cryptoparty movement she’d founded last year, and on the broader issues of misogyny and harassment within the community, as well as, as she put it, “down-right douchebaggery”.

The specifics of Wolf’s clashes with people within the crypto community aside, she put her finger on a  problem within that community that applies more generally to the software industry: it is dominated by men and many of those men have a problem with women.

Now, true, many also have a problem with pretty much everything else, too — encryption experts are marked by a Count Pococurante-like disgust for any non-expert opinion in their area or any encryption product that is less than perfect, and aren’t exactly backward in saying so. But Wolf’s experience seemed emblematic of the experience of many women working in the software industry and participating in the online activist movement. For example, Wolf was told by crypto and hacking veterans that she should quit the Cryptoparty movement she’d founded, and she was dismissed as a “mommy type” — as if, she noted, mere possession of a uterus rendered her insignificant.

Wolf’s experiences complemented the now commonly reported experience of women in the IT sector — in the workplace, online, at industry and community conferences. Indeed, the appalling treatment of women at conferences across a range of industries is an issue worthy of separate discussion; look at the “Creeper Cards” issue to see how resistant some male IT workers are to attempts to make conferences safer and more comfortable for women.

The issue is all the more important because it’s the people on the other end of the surveillance systems, industry and government, who seem more acutely aware of the absence of women from this space and more eager to address it — a 2006 survey found only 13% of employees in the cybersecurity sector were women. Big US defence contractors like Lockheed participate in an Annual Cool Careers in Cyber Security for Girls Summit held in Maryland. Cybersecurity conferences hold seminars on why the number of women in the industry is “alarmingly low”. The government and industry-run “Cyber Security Challenge” in the UK tries to encourage women and girls to enter competitions.

In short, the enemy is trying to get its act together on participation by women, while hackers are creating sexist pictures with creeper cards.

With the remorseless rise of the surveillance economy, privacy is suddenly a huge issue (and rightly so) for a male-dominated community that values its untrammeled online rights. But another way of viewing it is the exposure of a traditionally privileged and powerful group within society to the sort of scrutiny to which many other, less powerful groups, and particularly women, have always been exposed to, the targeting of one section of the traditional ruling elite with the sort of social control to which others have always been exposed.

As Naomi Wolf has noted, the war on reproductive choice currently underway in the United States can be seen as part of a broader assertion of an impulse for social control at a time when traditional authority is under challenge across a range of areas. The same logic applies the other way to the rise of the surveillance economy — it shouldn’t be separated from other efforts at social control.

Where the dismissiveness of women (at best) or misogyny (at worst) of many men in the hacker and online communities is self-defeating is in failing to understand the implications of Ashby’s and Wolf’s observations: the feminist experience offers a rich tradition for online activists to draw on, providing analytical tools that can expose the power relationships at the centre of attempts to curtail online freedom and the facades erected to disguise them, and strategies of empowerment that can expand the community. Cryptoparties are exactly the sort of inclusive, empowering strategy that delivers more benefits to the struggle to protect privacy than dozens of articles like this ever will.

But like women in the broader IT industry, and for that matter in too many other sectors, women will have to keep forcing their way into this space to ensure not merely that their voices are heard — the sort of goal that these days sounds decidedly unambitious — but that the wider struggle to protect basic rights online benefits from their experience and knowledge.

The surveillance economy is only the latest mechanism for social control. Its opponents would be wise to realize there’s a long tradition of resistance they can draw on.

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  • 1
    GF50
    Posted Friday, 15 February 2013 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Bernard, cheers and hugs, well written little dissertation.
    I have always been of the belief that “feminist” issues are much broader than female, that the argument on women’s rights has done much more than any other fight for ALL human rights, equality/liberty/democracy.
    What is disappointing to a latte sipping leftie of the 70’s is that such blatant sexism/discrimination is so entrenched into 2013 cyberspace. Online to a comment I suspect that a lot?? do not “gender” themselves because, having tried both ways myself if you identify as female the response is the classic sexist crap attack to devalue the validity of the comment, post the same as identified as male and the response is very different. Anyone can try this. I am very pleased to report that this, IMHO, not the case on Crikey.
    Equality issues are definitely not won yet! and our democracy is under threat, while that debate is minimised by sophistry and lies of LOTO/MSM. The same old ? if you have to ask “does my a..se look too big in this?” then you have answered your own question, and anyone who can read, and hear knows that at the highest level, PM of Australia, is minimised, trivialised and slagged purely on the basis the PM is a woman

  • 2
    moonkid
    Posted Friday, 15 February 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Solid point.

  • 3
    Buddy
    Posted Friday, 15 February 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    And if this is what it takes “But another way of viewing it is the exposure of a traditionally privileged and powerful group within society to the sort of scrutiny to which many other, less powerful groups, and particularly women, have always been exposed to, the targeting of one section of the traditional ruling elite with the sort of social control to which others have always been exposed.” Then I say great. But isn’t it a shame that the ruling patriarchy have to have there freedom and privacy restricted before they start to call foul… I too use an online name that does not automatically define my sex so specifically in order to have my contribution heard and not dismissed. Feminism benefits all..

  • 4
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Friday, 15 February 2013 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Look, this is just an argument to get more women into CCTV surveillance. On balance, I think they would be better observers, if for no other reason than that they can do more than one thing at a time, i.e., ogle men and check what is going on.

    But I jest, for female sexual response is much more diverse and complex than that of men. But given that women carry almost 100% of the human reproductive suite, it is hardly surprising that they cop most of the ogling.

    Stop feeling so guilty Bernard. You were designed to ogle a woman’s reproductive virtues. Get over it. You are a connaiseur like every other man. Just make sure you are sufficiently a fully mature adult that you can be trusted to behave appropriately in all the circumstances.

    And in the case of CCTV, do what women do, which is more than one thing at a time. Manage that, and you will have crowds of them chasing you down the street on CCTV, screaming at the tops of their lungs….”He’s mine….

  • 5
    Phantom
    Posted Saturday, 16 February 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Seems to me. Possibly the most “Privileged and powerful” group in western democracies are the feminists and women in general.
    The gender employment imbalance or disparity is highly favoring females in many professions eg. Primary school teachers 85% female. There is an imbalance favoring females in secondary schools also. Banks, hospitals, Telstra and other communications, media outlets this imbalance is obvious. Education bodies, universities etc have gender disparity favoring females. A worrying factor is that educational bodies and their agents. Are organizing programs to favor addressing supposed or real lower [than males] academic performance areas, to help females. Like Programs in areas such as language, including reading, writing, spelling etc are non existent for male students.
    The lack of male role models in Western Democracies, due to marriage and relationship break ups, single mother epidemic
    and simply no male adult in these households. Is acknowledged as a major problem in our nations today. Negative results abound, suicide, crime and inability to actually be a boy or man in the true male sense are a few. Yet, universities, schools, educators, politicians etc are ignoring this growing, trumpeting elephant in the room.

  • 6
    Tom Jones
    Posted Saturday, 16 February 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phantom, I sense you have a few issues because you have failed to engage with the issues raised in any meaningful way. A good article but it is just sad for you that you prove all of the points raised. I notice that you see where women have a majority in the low paid occupations you mention but aren’t concerned about the majority of males in high paying positions.
    The security industry is one where women have an advantage in being able to calm situations and yet men are hired because of their brawn and ability to jump on people and there is a lot of bullying of the women because their skills are not valued.
    Watching CCTV cameras doesn’t require brute force however but the firms doing the hiring would have to change their female unfriendly cultures which would probably mean that better detection would occur.

  • 7
    Posted Sunday, 17 February 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    As long as Stephen Fry can come out with the astonishing comment that women are clearly undersexed because you don’t find them in ladies lavatories trying to pick up rough trade; (OWTTE) so long will women have to fight to be somewhere near parity with the male of the species.

    Cyberspace resembles planet earth in that there’s a whole other world to convince that the female reproductive system and mental intelligence can/cannot be mutually exclusive.

  • 8
    Phantom
    Posted Monday, 18 February 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Venise Alstergren…Stephen Fry: a man with an over impressed view of himself. I wouldn’t [+ don’t] watch or listen to him period! He gives blokes a bad name!

  • 9
    Posted Monday, 18 February 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    PHANTOM: Could not agree more. Cheers V

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