#16DaysOfActivism: Our bodies, our data? Online surveillance and criminalization

5 December 2022

This blog post is part two of our #16DaysOfActivism: Reproductive injustice is violence against women in digital and physical worlds series, to be published weekly along the #16DaysOfActivism campaign. Did you miss any part of the series? Read part 1 and part 3.

Every year, feminist activists and human rights defenders across the world commemorate #16DaysOfActivism, a global campaign against gender-based violence. This year will be no different. Under the theme: “UNiTE! ACTIVISM TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN & GIRLS!”, the global call is for everyone to be an activist and take a stand to oppose violence against women.

Reproductive justice and gender-based violence are inextricably connected. They are also no longer simply issues of the physical realm; they are core to how we want to reimagine our internet experiences. At Whose Knowledge?, our contribution to the #16DaysOfActivism campaign will be a three-part blog series reflecting on our bodily autonomy, online surveillance and data rights, and language justice for reproductive rights. Our aim is to reflect on these issues from a decolonial anti-oppressions lens, and to decenter the United States in the conversations on reproductive justice, while centering some examples from Africa and Latin America. In doing so, we celebrate the sorority of women and non-binary people from marginalized communities who fight individually and collectively for bodily autonomy and liberation.
Image of an Equality Labs sticker showing a dark-skinned femme-presenting person holding a sign saying 'End mass surveillance'
Surveillance, censorship and dataficiation all have a role to play in limiting women’s rights and access to reproductive care. Image by
DTankersley (WMF), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

State surveillance of our bodies through legislation and political institutions like the US Supreme Court is not delinked from online surveillance. In fact, there is a complicity between the patriarchal arm of the law and the collection of our digital data.

Data is the most valuable commodity there is, as it is the raw material for tech companies’ enormous fortunes. It’s no coincidence that Facebook is one of the world’s largest data-harvesting platforms, and its revenue — measured by billions of dollars — has been steadily growing since 2009.

Our personal data is collected constantly through online activities such as a Google search, sending text messages, and shopping online. When this data is processed (usually by a computer), it becomes of value as information. Information about our actions, political views, behaviors, decisions… those of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

After Roe v Wade’s overturning, many news outlets covered how women’s online activity was instrumental in being persecuted for having abortions in the US. One example is the case of teenager Celeste Burgess and her mother, who were prosecuted based on evidence from the teenager’s private Facebook messages – which were obtained directly from Facebook by court order. But data harvesting by tech companies in partnership with new surveillance states is not limited to the realm of reproductive rights and is not limited to the US. On the contrary, the use of digital evidence to criminalize people has become the norm today thanks to the datafication of life.

But what does this mean for people in the Global South who want to have abortions? 

Digital data influences our life beyond the internet

Storage and use of digital data may seem less of a problem in the Global South, given the pronounced contexts of physical gender-based violence and poverty. But the barriers between the online and the offline world are much more diffuse, if not nonexistent.

Let’s remember, for instance, how very tailored communication strategies (which included propaganda videos with violent content, disinformation campaigns, etc.) to target specific audiences, based on the processing of their data, were successfully used to influence in the outcome of the Trinidad and Tobago elections in 2010, and to destabilized the electoral process in Nigeria in 2015. Facebook has also been instrumental in the election outcomes in India, where it offered cheaper advertising deals to prime minister Narendra Modi’s party.

Nigerian president Buhari on the campaign trail.
Tailored communication strategies have managed to destabilise governments and influence election outcomes across the globe, like the 2015 Nigerian elections where Muhammadu Buhari [pictured] ran against Jonathan Goodluck. Image by
Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Censorship and its impact on women’s health

Approximately 79% of the Latin American and Caribbean population is on Facebook. In fact, in some countries in the Global South, Facebook is the internet. In general, social networks are the place where we, women and gender-diverse folks, look for context-specific information on abortion and other sexual and reproductive rights and health issues, accessible in our languages.

Unfortunately, these platforms block content according to their terms of service, which are policies designed by legal teams totally detached from the complex and multiple realities of the Global South, particularly those of women. Thus, much of the content on sexual and reproductive rights falls under the classification of “sensitive content” and is therefore not accessible to the public. Instagram, a Facebook Inc. company, now renamed Meta, has become particularly famous for blocking this type of content.

This censorship, and the unilateral management of online content by tech monopolies generally, has a negative impact on the quantity and quality of information accessible to women who have decided to have an abortion. It also prevents women from having access to necessary medicines to have a safe abortion. This scenario of content control and censorship also makes it difficult for women to build and strengthen feminist support networks, as social media accounts of these groups are frequently blocked. Even in the outcry and awareness raising about whose accounts are blocked, Global South feminists and pro-abortion groups usually don’t have their own websites to denounce this censorship, as many feminist organizations from the Global North do. Censorship in the Global South takes place out of sight of Big Tech, governments, and civil society in the Global North, hence disproportionately silencing women from our regions of the world.

So what about period tracker apps? 

Then we have the period tracking apps and the fertility/ovulation monitoring apps. These may not be as widespread in the Global South as they are in the rest of the world — for now. However, they are embedded in the same completely invasive business model that collects large amounts of personal data and then sells it to third parties.

Unfortunately, very few of these applications place privacy at the center of their design. On the contrary, this extractivist model of data commercialization contributes to seeing women’s bodies and their magical reproductive capabilities as mere data-generating engines and data mines. Objectification of women’s bodies is dangerous because it is the basis for gender-based violence.

Personal data protection laws and their limitations

On a global level, there are varying personal data protection laws that aim to control the storage and use of data by tech companies – mainly in the private sector but sometimes by governments too. The best example is the GDPR in Europe, which established pioneering data protection standards and obligations, with the potential to be replicated outside of Europe. In Africa, South Africa and Rwanda are countries with advanced data protection laws.

But the regulatory framework that dictates how our data is stored and used is not enough in the context of reproductive rights in the Global South. The implementation of public policies (and even more so those referring to the digitalization of life) is very challenging across our continents. Also, the states that design and implement these regulations are the same actors who persecute and condemn women who decide to abort.

For bodily autonomy, data and information

From a stance of autonomy, self-determination, organization and collective care, our bodies are territories to defend. As part of this broad resistance movement, we need to take control of our data, or at least reduce our digital footprint as much as possible by choosing to use platforms and services that put privacy and security at the heart of their design. In fact, we need the entire internet to have a privacy by design and default approach. We also need our privacy focused friends in the Global North to understand that the contexts and definitions of privacy and security are different in our communities, particularly because we need privacy that is designed around both the individual and the community or collective. Designing for privacy in the United States is not necessarily going to support privacy in Kenya or Argentina. 

Three African women in the digital rights and safety sphere look at a laptop intently.

Carolyne Ekyarisiima, Angela Minayo and Irene Mwendwa at the “Decolonizing the Internet East Africa” convening in Lusaka, Zambia. Image by
Tinaral, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Furthermore, letting the tech monopolies of Silicon Valley control the content that is published on social networks is deeply problematic from the point of view of freedom of expression and the right to access positive, context-specific, and safe information about abortion. We need to regain control over our content – we must create and control our own spaces on the internet.

Stay tuned for the third part of the #16DaysOfActivism: Reproductive injustice is violence against women in digital and physical worlds series, with reflections on reliable abortion information in different languages and language justice, to be published next week!

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