Interview with Eva Blum-Dumontet, Privacy International

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Image description: woman walking by, covering her face with Chinese magazine

Image description: woman walking by, covering her face with Chinese magazine. Photo by Josh Edgoose on Unsplash

In the recent report from Privacy International “From Oppression to Liberation: Reclaiming the Right to Privacy”, author Eva Blum-Dumontet frames privacy legislation as a “protector of human dignity and an enabler of autonomy”. Privacy allows women and members of marginalised communities to create safe spaces of expression and makes available tools that challenge norms that restrict equality, access and control. On the other hand, the report provides insight on the ways that privacy has been used by individuals, family, society, institutions and corporations to impose patriarchal values that limit and reduce women, transgender and gender diverse people to shadows in the public discourse. 

Bianca Baldo (BB)- What motivates you to work in the field of privacy, identity and gender equality?

Eva Blum-Dumontet(EBD): On a personal level, I am a feminist activist. I have always been interested in the ways feminism is expressed in society. In terms, of the work I have been doing at PI on gender and privacy,  it all started with a call I received from a French activist. She was working with survivors of online-gender-based violence and felt that anonymity online was getting in the way of punishing harassers. She was campaigning for the end of anonymity online and struggled with the resistance she was facing from privacy campaigners. I realised there was a perception that maybe privacy was not on the side of women and gender diverse people. This was the beginning of a long journey, one that examined the positive and negative effects of privacy on gender rights.

This was the beginning of a long journey, one that examined the positive and negative effects of privacy on gender rights.

An illustrative example of privacy law being applied in a way that encourages gender equality is the recent case in India, where the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that prohibited homosexuality on the premise that privacy is a fundamental constitutional right.  They asserted that the Indian criminal code that prohibited homosexuality as being “against the order of nature” amounted to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and was unconstitutional.

Lawyers working to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision had a breakthrough last year. “What changed everything was last year’s privacy judgment,” said Gautam Bhatia, a Delhi-based lawyer and legal scholar. “In August 2017 the supreme court held there was a fundamental right to privacy, and as part of that, five judges said the 2013 decision was wrong” (Guardian, Micheal Safi)

BB- What are the challenges identified with privacy and feminism?

EBD: Privacy has historically been used as a tool to protect the private sphere, as defined by the notion of private property. The idea was that the state needed to be kept out of the homes. Within this definition, women belong inside the home, and this restrictive vision of privacy has been used against them, with the idea that women needed to be protected from the outside world, to ensure their modesty and to control their sexuality.

Through a feminist lens, we can see that the law has been created with men in mind, and by men. In principle, the right to privacy and the human rights that follow should apply equally to men and women. The reality is that your gender and class, race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity will affect your ability to exercise these rights.

The reality is that your gender and class, race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity will affect your ability to exercise these rights.

 “The role privacy has played historically in the oppression of women, trans and gender diverse people is (sic) because of the way it was exploited by those in power. A distorted notion of privacy emerging from patriarchy and other systems of oppression has been used to restrict women to the private space, where family life takes place and where they are meant to stay. The legal discourse around the right to privacy was very much created to protect men and the sanctity of their homes, thus creating impunity for the violence perpetrated against women and children inside those homes. In more recent developments, anonymity has been increasingly used online to silence women who join in the public discourse.” (Blum-Dumontet, 2018)

A distorted notion of privacy emerging from patriarchy and other systems of oppression has been used to restrict women to the private space, where family life takes place and where they are meant to stay.

If we look towards the example of domestic violence, privacy rights were directly linked to the family's authority and the right to be left alone. It is based on the premise that the State, government authority should not intervene in family matters. The next point of reference is how this applies to women. What happens to women if they are left alone, left alone with their abusers, shunned by society and without recourse against violence in the family? This is the phrasing also used in our manifesto

When the right to privacy has been defined as protecting the sanctity of homes and the right to be left alone inside our homes, it really was not for the privacy of women. With 137 women reportedly killed every day across the world by a partner or family member and 35 per cent of women worldwide having experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their partner, one better hope that men should not be “left alone” in their homes.

We want to encourage women and gender diverse people to reclaim the right to privacy as a right that works for them. We have seen instances of this happening in the past, for example with the right to abortion in the US, that has been legalised because it was considered to fall under the women’s right to privacy. What is interesting in this case is that it helps us to think about privacy differently. It’s no longer about homes and our communications, but about bodily autonomy.

BB- What is social surveillance and why is it important when examining privacy rights?

EBD: Social surveillance is basically the surveillance that we experience at home from our families and our friends.  Surveillance that takes place, for instance, on social media platforms from within the networks of people we know. By looking at the interaction between the three types of surveillance (government, corporate and social surveillance) and patriarchal rules and expectations, we realise how essential it is for women and gender diverse people to have a right to privacy that adequately protects them.

BB - Could you please provide additional information on how the three types of surveillance are being examined by Privacy International?

 EBD: There is an interesting tie between the three types of surveillance. The lived experiences with surveillance of women and gender diverse people are unique compared to men.

At home, when women and young girls engage with social media on available phones, there is an expectation that parents and brothers will check and watch their online activities. The work that the organisation Point of View has done in rural north India shows that generally if there is one extra phone in the household, it will be given to the boy. When the son uses this technological device, he will have more freedom. There is a social expectation that girls will be watched more by their family in their online activities.

Companies collect data for advertisement purposes with the aim of generating a profile about you and your consumption habits. This allows them to target you with product placements that you may or may not want. Women are more likely to be targeted with phone and computer applications that reflect gender, including diet schemes, fitness trackers and other applications that promote a specific image of what a woman’s body should look like. The corporate world focuses on a restrictive body image that commercialises the female body to sell products.

Women are more likely to be targeted with phone and computer applications that reflect gender, including diet schemes, fitness trackers and other applications that promote a specific image of what a woman’s body should look like.

BB- In this sense, the industry uses the private information collected behind these applications, to best target women and sell women products that reduce women and girls to images that can be control and processed by capitalist consumption. This data contributes towards the patriarchal norms when data information determined by your gender creates an online profile that reduces a woman’s capacity and access fuelled by sexist gendered stereotypes.

EBD: On top of this, the state conducts a form of surveillance on a different level from the moment of your birth, by assigning you an identity. The creation of your birth certificate is the first act of being tracked by the state. These papers identify you and your gender.  It categorises you as a gendered person with the associated rights, roles and responsibility. Gender becomes part of how the State builds an image of your identity, an image of you.  Gender becomes a type of data that is intentionally the first layer of data associated with you. It is often difficult to change, if at all possible.  For many people, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the way they experience their own gender identity. Here we have a system where the State and corporations build profiles about you.  It is not just about targeting you with advertising and products but can also have an impact on your access to services offered by the State. For example, your gender identity can impact your ability to collect insurance and your rates are linked to your data. Data collection directly affects your life.

The systematic collection of data and online profiling based on your gender, combined with state practices of assignment of gender at birth, all contribute towards the perpetuation of patriarchy. Data collection supports a world where gender is how you divide people and decide who has access to what.  These divisions coincide with family ties in which fathers, brothers, sisters and even mothers, assert social pressure to assure that you conform to these norms and match these gender expectations.   

Data collection supports a world where gender is how you divide people and decide who has access to what.

BB- This structure seems to quickly sort out babies by their assigned gender and sex, and then the associated rights and privileges, which are imposed throughout a person's life. This is the starting point of numerous decisions relating to your rights to control your body, to have access to reproductive services and choices, and to have a say in the decision that affects your life. How did the shift happen from focusing on privacy within the government to a corporate lens to gender?

EBD: It’s not a shift. We still work on government and corporate surveillance.

BB - You mentioned that Privacy International’s Report examined privacy for women, trans and gender diverse people. How did you define the scope of the report?

“Every human being is to a degree subject to corporate and government surveillance. But, as research conducted by the Privacy International Network shows, there is a uniqueness to the surveillance faced by women, trans and gender queer people.” – From Report

EBD: As our premise was based on the connections between surveillance and patriarchy, and so much of our identity is affected by gender. There is the binary nature of gender. You belong to either the category of women or men and this defines our identity.  It allows governments and corporations to profile you, and to then target specific products, to control access to services and encourage gender social controls. 

 “While ID systems are often presented as a way to assert one’s identity and to prevent others from usurping that identity, they are primarily a way for the state to control and monitor the population. From birth to death, states create a record of our existence, imposing criteria (name, gender, date, and place of birth, amongst others depending on the country) that are meant to define our identity. Depending on nationality, this identity will grant or deny us access to healthcare, work, benefits, and allow us to travel - or not.” – From Report

Depending on nationality, this identity will grant or deny us access to healthcare, work, benefits, and allow us to travel - or not.

BB: Thank you for sharing with us

Eva Blum-Dumontet’s ongoing podcasts at Privacy International are bringing to light how gender and privacy issues intersect across all aspects of life, from the bigger question of violence against members of a marginalised community to how transgender people negotiate administrative issues such as personal identification cards. Her recent podcast highlights the ways that members of the transgender community too often encounter challenges in the navigation of the government administrative process as they do not fall within the female or male categories. This fluidity is a direct challenge to the status quo, to patriarchy and social norms, which can often jeopardise social status and personal security of transgender people.

The first podcast from the Gender and Privacy Series podcast from Privacy International, Eva Blum-Dumontet speaks to activists Naomi Fontanos and AR Arcon on the impact of the government of the Philippines’ reforms to the ID system and how this impacts the transgender community and its activists in Manila.