What would feminist privacy discourse look like?

10 privacy industry experts, all men, sitting at around a conference table I was flipping through Scientific American’s special issue on privacy when I noticed a piece detailing their industry roundtable on privacy. I was immediately struck by the fact that all the experts were men. Now, I realize the perils of gender essentialism. But if we’re all located in different sorts of cultural and sociological situations, then 10 men (mostly white) coming from places of respect in industry certainly do have some things in common with one another that they don’t share in common with many people with different gender, (trans)national, racial, class, legal (etc) locations.

Put more simply, what does it mean that technological privacy discourse in the US seems to largely (but not exclusively) be the province of well-employed, technologically savvy, often white men?

Is the disproportionate presence of white men just because men are overrepresented in many high-status positions? Or is there something privacy as a discourse that invites certain kinds of perspectives and not others?

What kinds of ellisions are frequently made when discussing privacy and biological, social, financial, locational, or other data?

Of course, it would be too simple to assume that, say, people with medical conditions are more concerned about privacy and data hiding than other people. (I actually had this hypothesis in some ethnographic research around privacy I did last year.) Sites like Patients Like Me let people put volunteer their symptoms, drugs they’re taking, and discussions of their experience.

One disability activist group I studied met in Second Life and discussed personal information about living with a disability. One of their causes was to fight for patient rights. I once asked if they were worried about members of another group they planned actions against eavesdropping. One person explained, “At least that would mean that they cared about what we had to say!”

Predicting what people want to keep private is highly situated. Maybe the first step would be that privacy experts would stop giving us privacy prescriptions and start encouraging us to reflect on our privacy needs.

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4 Responses
  1. zelda says:

    I’m struck by how much this image looks like it was taken in, say, 1955.

    Re privacy discourse: one of the factors here has to be the fact that many of the major recent fights over privacy have been about control of data (medical data, use of tracking devices, internet data, patents, etc.)– or in a Foucauldian sense, about data bodies as surrogates for meat bodies. It has been a technologically constructed discourse in significant part because the people (mostly male) who are savvy about data are, by virtue of their expertise, likely to believe in technological solutions– for example, better encryption. When you look at data privacy and data rights as a legal-ethical-social nexus, however, you find many more women as key thinkers– Pamela Samuelson and Jessica Litman, to name just two off the top of my head.

    Re medical privacy: I’ve read a number of articles and interviews lately about people getting their their entire genetic profile done. This costs several thousand dollars and is not covered by insurance for the most part, so right now it’s largely the province of the well-informed and the well-to-do– and the just plain well. Out of sheer curiosity–not to mention a sense that this is a clear instance of knowledge being power–I would love to do this myself. But I have to say that, short of dire necessity, I will not do it because it is obvious to me that for the next umpteen years (I’d guess in the range of 5-15) this information will be used against the individual by the health care industry in every possible way. If people think butting heads with insurance companies over “pre-existing conditions” is a nasty business now, wait til those companies can get their hands on our genetic profiles. Can the laws and social norms on this be changed? Surely, and I think it’s likely going to be one of those areas where a bitter test case will force the necessary changes in the law. Nonetheless, it’s still hard for me to imagine a scenario in America under our current health care industry where we will be able to assert our right to have this information–and not be severely penalized for it. But I also hope I’m wrong about this.

  2. metamanda says:

    hmph. That’s just the privacy experts that industry respects. Google around to see what Violet Blue has to say about sexual privacy online (something that sex workers, who are, let’s face it, mostly women, are pretty concerned about).

    But of course, people who deal with technology and sex are not typically the ones that industry respects, even if they do know something about privacy.

    Privacy’s a cross-cutting concern — if the roundtable had a technology focus, that can explain why the gender skew.

  3. Lilly says:

    Yeah, good point about sex workers. I also am awaiting getting a book called “Overseers of the Poor: Surveillance, Resistance, and the Limits of Privacy” that talks about the experience of welfare parents who have always been subjects of state surveillance in very overt ways.

    I’m still into the Standpoint Theory method of privacy investigation, even if I am advised that privacy is an analytical hairball unwise to pursue as a research topic by certain advisory peoples.

  4. Lowvisonary says:

    Interesting comments about the disability group. Disabled people are also prone to abuse of privacy about our most personal details. As for the political activism – getting anyone interested enough to read about it would probably be something of a coup, given our general invisibility and the invisibility of our issues.

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