From Menstruation Apps to Nude Selfies: Data Politics

11/16/2017 09:37 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2017

“Are you on this new menstruation app?” a friend asked recently, to which my answer was a big “NO!” When I explained I was worried about my privacy, her reaction was predictable: “Oh come on, Sema. You are so paranoid.”

Paranoid or not, I feel weird about these apps infiltrating the most intimate spheres of my life—my period to begin with. It feels strange to click on “I agree”, knowing the app will prompt me to answer all kinds of questions from how often I have sex and how much I drink, to my hair and skin quality over the course of a month. I wouldn’t tell a complete stranger the intimate details of my sex life, so why would I share them with an app—which is essentially a stranger disguised as an algorithm.

The Glass Room, an exhibition in London last month curated by Tactical Technology Collective and presented by Mozilla, was particularly critical to furthering the discussion on digital privacy from a gender perspective. At this “pop-up tech store with a twist”, participants were invited to interact with data politics through a combination of experimentation and art.

At The Glass Room, Gisela Pérez de Acha from Mexico City-based Derechos Digitales, conducted a talk exploring the relationship between gender and consent in search engines. “Consent—whether offline or online—should mean the same thing: freely given, informed, reversible and specific,” she said. “Nonetheless, in the online environment it has come to have quite a different meaning. If you Google me you will find naked pictures of me even though the results are very old.”

Similar thoughts shaped my hesitation to join the large scale #MeToo campaign, which attempted to raise awareness on gender-based violence and abuse. I opted out, not only because I didn’t feel like I should out myself as a survivor of sexual abuse to make people understand how systemic gender based violence is, but also because I do not consent to attaching extremely personal and intimate stories to a hashtag, knowing that data will likely sit in a US server for the rest of my life—or even beyond. Even worse, the extremely critical and vulnerable data could potentially feed into algorithms trying to sell me “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts, making the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey even richer than they already are.

Joana Varon of Coding Rights, a Brazil based women-led think tank, reflected on data-driven societies in an interview: “In our societies, dataveillance is closely related to the business model of digital technologies,” Varon said. “An extensive amount of data is collected about us every day, and it is unlikely that current data regimes will allow us to be simply forgotten.” In a context where we are deliberately prevented from regulating the amount and type of data collected, stored and analysed about us, can we really have the necessary safeguards to ensure consent?

This is not to say I have fundamental issues with apps or digital technologies in general, or people using them. I am actually happy for everyone to use such services as long as they are fully aware of the agreements to which they are consenting. For example, Choice Australia, a consumer advocacy group in Australia, playfully explored Amazon Kindle’s privacy policy, hiring an actor who read 73,198 words of terms and conditions through a span of eight hours and fifty nine minutes. Can we really have informed consent when it is almost impossible to have the time and space to read through all the necessary legal gibberish?

Having said that, I do understand friends and loved ones who are a bit hesitant to internalise how there is no online versus offline binary. Technology and the role data plays in our lives is perceived to be a complicated discussion which needs to be explored and translated. There is still the presumption that tech-related discussions are of an elite nature, out of reach to anyone who doesn’t hold a computer science degree. I can certainly relate to this sentiment as it took me considerable political education to realise data driven societies shape the social political contexts we live in.

Despite aggressive data regimes infiltrating our lives and imposing a significant impact on agency and politics, women, trans* and gender non-conforming individuals are engaged in a resilient effort to reclaim discussions on consent and autonomy. The fun and easy to navigate zine for sending safer nudes, by Coding Rights, is an inspiring model of reaching everyday users with an attempt to increase their data awareness. Some other examples are Hackfeminists in Oaxaca, Mexico developing narratives and strategies on physical and digital self defense, or Women on Waves flying drones to provide abortion pills in countries where women don’t have full access to sexual and reproductive health rights.

Such efforts do come at the expense of risks and attacks. “As we become louder and more effective, misogynistic and homophobic individuals and groups attack our community through harassment, violence and disdain,” Varon said. “Thanks to the work of remarkable feminist and/or queer activists, discussions around gender equality are permeating technological agendas.”

On the question of how we can reclaim autonomy and consent under such aggressive data regimes Varon’s answer is simple “Be aware of data flows such as what kind of data you want to share or not. Don’t be afraid of technologies and even coding alternatives that can be embedded with feminist values and principles.” De Acha adds: “There is definitely a gender and class digital access gap. Only us, the privileged can be connected enough to be aware of these issues and discuss them. How to make this more massive? How to reach more people? In that aspect, I think installations like The Glass Room are doing an amazing job to bridge the gap.”

image by Tactical Technology Collective
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