Why Malcolm Turnbull’s attack on privacy is a feminist issue


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Privacy feels like a dull subject these days – existing in the world of deep Facebook settings and endless unseen terms and conditions. The loss of it seems a small price to pay for having the world available at our fingertips.

We tend to value our privacy, but also hope to put very little effort into maintaining it. The increasing popularity of easy-to-use encrypted chat apps like Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp shows that we care enough to make changes to our routine as long as we aren’t inconvenienced.

On Friday, Malcolm Turnbull announced the Australian government’s plan to break the end-to-end encryption provided by these and other apps in cases where law enforcement requires access, reasoning that the rule of law must apply online as it does off.

Aside from the difficulty of such a task, when Turnbull says he’ll ensure “the internet is not used as a dark place for bad people to hide their criminal activities,” we have to ask: exactly what people is he referring to?

It’s only been 20 years since Tasmania struck down laws criminalising homosexuality, 22 years after South Australia was the first state to decriminalise the act, and it’s been 115 years since (some white) women were granted the right to vote, far fewer in the case of the Aboriginal population.

Today, sex workers in Australia still face a life of legal uncertainty from differing legislation across state boundaries. Women seeking abortion, likewise. While it’s always terrorists and paedophiles on the teleprompters of politicians, many people find just being a woman, queer, a person of colour, and/or having a disability is enough to attract the attention and indignation of law enforcement.

These groups and others have at some point had aspects or even the entirety of their lives deemed illegal. In a world where technology demands ever more access into our lives, privacy is undeniably a feminist issue: the rights we claim now have not always been ours.

When marginalised communities are harmed by intrusion of and exclusion from services and companies online, this is an extension of how the state polices us in the real world. Facebook’s “real name” policies prompt transgender people and women in the public eye to become targets; and even sharing an opinion online apparently makes us deserving of an inundation of abuse.

When Turnbull explains that the law must continue “to prevail in the online world as it has in the past”, he neglects that the rule of law hasn’t always done so, and in many cases, the weight of legislation has been behind institutionalised discrimination and violence.

From (predominantly male) US intelligence officers caught using NSA technology to spy on women they had been intimate with, to the iCloud leaks in 2013, there are countless examples of the way new technology has been used to harass and harm women, especially when government legislation is unable (or, when it doesn’t see the issue as a serious problem, unwilling) to keep up.

In an article for Privacy International, activist and lawyer Shmyla Khan writes: “existing forms of violence are replicated online in many of the same ways as they are present offline; the same patriarchal norms, exclusions and violence form a link into the digital age.”

This is why online privacy, let alone online existence, is more than just theoretical for women and other marginalised communities. Similar to being under the male gaze in public, being watched by the patriarchal state makes one alter one’s behaviour and hide certain aspects, Khan argues. She also connects the processes of online harassment to this phenomenon.

As a woman who presents a very truthful (and open) version of myself online, I need privacy for the carefully delineated aspects of myself I don’t share – and I’ve come to doubt and self-police my online presence out of fear of repercussions.

It’s easy to block harassers, the same way it’s easy to avoid men I know are harmful in public spaces. But similarly to how I tend not to feel safe in a crowd of strangers, the anonymous throng of people online can be incredibly intimidating. I can walk a long route home to avoid someone following me in person, but there’s little you can do to stop them following your Twitter account (all you need to do is log out to view someone who has blocked you).

The most common argument against (especially online) privacy is that of “you have nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide,” usually said by people who still password-protect their computers and get undressed behind closed doors.

When people attempt to establish digital privacy as less important than physical privacy, they ignore that digital spaces are where marginalised people frequently find support, from those seeking asylum across national borders to teenagers sharing selfies with friends.

Turnbull says we “need to ensure that the internet is not used as a dark place”, but sometimes it’s dark places we need to rally the fight for a better future, or find support when we’re seeking reproductive health care that’s otherwise unavailable to us, or just share photos of our naked bodies with friends, without fear of them being intercepted by a third party.

The truth is that we all require privacy – from people just living their lives, to journalists, victims of police misconduct, women seeking abortions, MPs, and many others besides. Bruce Schneier, a privacy specialist, sums it up by saying “The premise [is] that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It’s not. Privacy is an inherent human right.”

The way we use technology today – to consensually share so many parts of our lives, bodies and selves with both trusted and select circles, and the world – is intrinsically different to communications of yesteryear. It’s something George Brandis fails to grasp when he says this law merely “contemporises … a well established legal principle.”

While legislation should be updated to reflect this shift, it needs to also reflect that people who are joyfully sharing far more of themselves into quasi-public domains than ever before still deserve privacy in all aspects of their unshared lives, even if what they’re sharing is nudes.

Encryption is a way of bringing the right to privacy into our modern digital realm, and reflects that technology isn’t simply a neutral force, but manifests the real world patriarchal structures of those who create and use it.

Legislative change is an important part of recognising these structures online, sometimes on the part of the government itself, but it must come with an understanding of the limitations of technology, and the right to privacy of all citizens – even those who claim nothing to hide.

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