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.