The 67th session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67) took place in March 2023. Three BCS members were delegates and reported on some of the sessions. Penny Hooper MBCS reports on how we can protect privacy for those who are most vulnerable to exploitation.
The prominent theme of the UN CSW67 was ‘Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.’ The principle behind the event was ‘taking action for gender equality in digital spaces, innovation, education and technology’. The information pack that I received gave the following statistics:
- 89% of tech CEOs are men
- Nearly 200 million women worldwide don’t own mobile phones, and boys are 1.8 times more likely to own a smartphone than girls
- Almost 40% of women worldwide have experienced online violence, and 80% have witnessed it
- Only 0.5% of girls want to become tech professionals
- Excluding women from the digital world has cost global GDP $1 trillion over the past decade, which will increase to $1.5 trillion lost by 2025 if action is not taken now, as the digital gender gap is increasing
My main takeaway from CSW67 is an enthusiasm to learn and do more for gender equality. Globally, we are 300 years away from being even close to equality: I’m not happy with that. As many others aren’t. I want to do something about it.
Protecting privacy for the most vulnerable
The team I was in discussed: ‘As we store more and more of our lives online, and institutions are able to access our data to serve us with increasingly personalised and relevant offers, how do we protect privacy for those who are most vulnerable to exploitation – both by the private sector, and by the state?’
Amongst the many ideas put forward were suggestions for enhancing polices and legislation to ensure technology companies are held more accountable, and providing better and easier access to information and legal aid.
Personally, online safety was instilled into me from an early age. Back in the 90s and the early 2000s when household internet was becoming more common, a school friend and I would spend our free time on the internet. After the horrific sound of the dial-up modem whirring, we could view just a collection of ‘web pages’. No fancy Java Script or back-end databases. One such page my friend found, labelled as a ‘sanity test’, was simply a picture of a Formula 1 car along with what we all now know as the Crazy Frog music. The idea behind it was that if you laughed, you were ‘insane’. (It turned out I wasn’t insane — go me!).
Security and safety on the internet wasn’t as big then. We saw viruses, but they were just pesky things that would either pop up on your screen or make your computer run slowly; they were merely a nuisance. Nuisances which, of course, would probably have been more devastating to an internet-facing organisation using computing technology, but to a pre-teen they weren’t. Plus, while there were some viruses knocking around that were a little more destructive, they were unlikely to proliferate as they do now.
The harms of life online
However, my dad was a tad more clued up when it came to computer technology and he would constantly remind me to be safe on the internet. The reason for his concern was obvious; I was subjected to things that were a little more worrying than a crazy F1 car. I saw things that no pre-teen should see — and as I grew up and went to secondary school the tone of the things I saw also changed, when I first learnt about certain ‘fetishes’, shall we say.
Nowadays, with more and more people gaining access to the internet, the worse the videos, pictures, and general abuse are. Even before joining UN Women this year for CSW67, I was aware of the cyber-bullying, public shaming, intimidation and cyber-stalking — which can start online and progress to offline, something I have personally experienced.
Then there is the ubiquity of impossible beauty standards, which are actually encouraged by algorithms: there was even a piece of research conducted by Facebook/Instagram that found a link between declining mental health in teenagers (mostly girls) and the use of Instagram. Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, said he has been working hard to get the team to ‘embrace [their] responsibilities more broadly’. But that piece of research was published in September 2021, and I haven’t seen any marked improvement — but please do let me know if I’m wrong. Maybe Shar.on485283, who keeps trying and failing to DM me, has the answers?
The role of publicity in GDPR enforcement
Now, a lot of people are slowly getting clued onto these issues (at least in the western world). But what about other general gender bias that exists in technology and online?
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Certainly, there are laws around the storage, collection, processing and use of personal data online, yet when organisations (usually the bigger ones such as Meta) experience data or GDPR breaches, they get hit with a large fine and then do it all over again the following year.
There are some big changes happening in light of TikTok recently — but how much of that is just because they’re in the lime-light currently? Other organisations are looking at what’s going on and following suit. It’s easy to imagine a corporate tech mogul biting into a hearty meal, casually flicking through his thousands of TV channels as an ironically dressed employee says ‘hey, you seen this TikTok ban? Maybe we should find another income-stream until it blows over? I hear Facebook has rebranded…’. Companies are getting away with GDPR breaches all the time — some are being found out, others aren’t.
Who is responsible for data safety?
I know to not give personal details over to people/organisations, regardless of the organisation. I have refused to give my address to recruiters unless an actual contract is being drafted up. I have refused to give websites my mobile number unless it is absolutely necessary (which is why I haven’t got on the ChatGPT band-wagon). I don’t order online unless it’s from a reputable company with a secure socket layer. I know to click ‘reject all cookies’ or ‘manage cookies’. But not everyone does.
So who is responsible? The person giving their data out? The organisation who isn’t implementing information security properly, or who is deliberately making it difficult to opt out? Or is it at the government level for making lax regulations organisation can continuously break?
Targeting women with marketing misinformation
Speaking at a central CSW67 event called ‘Women’s Health and Well-Being: Integrating Information and Communication Technologies, Universal Health Coverage, NCDs, and Policy’ was Bill Jeffery, the Executive Director for the Centre for Health Science and Law in Canada. He did a study on ‘infodemic’ companies and the recklessness of poor information that can be damaging to the lives of women. The title of his presentation was ‘Curating information for self-care: When governments don’t enforce laws to inoculate against and infodemic, companies sometimes are reckless and self-service in claims’.
He pointed out that women are more of a target for misinformation than men, such as misinformation around breast-milk substitutes, food and medicines, products and services related to women’s issues such as cosmetic surgery and feminine hygiene. There are many targeted, misleading advertisements preying specifically on women who are vulnerable or in vulnerable situations, sometimes promoting damaging products. He explained that there were even a few laws broken, but as these laws only act on consumer complaints, they are rarely enforced. While Bill’s presentation related specifically to Canada, it is indicative of a wider issue, particularly bringing to mind Instagram and TikTok ‘influencers’ giving out bad, and sometimes damaging, advice.
Policies, legislature, and to an extent having companies fined, is all well and good — but it’s not enough. We need to be doing more. There needs to be a review to make organisations more accountable, a push to create easy, free access to information about your rights, and easy and affordable (if not free) access to legal aid.
My involvement in discussing ways to improve the digital gender divide and issues surrounding women in technology, at least within the concepts of online data and online lives, was valuable - but the majority of the time was spent listening to the current research, and to those who are currently making efforts to bridge gaps and build an enthusiasm to do more.
The in-person discussion lasted just over an hour. That wasn’t enough to come up with solutions to an on-going complex topic. That isn’t necessarily a criticism of UN Women, but an observation, which is why it’s important to instil enthusiasm of more people (men, women, and non-binary) to be taking more action. It’s not a UN Women’s problem to solve: it’s a world-wide problem to solve. We’re all in this and we all need to be doing more.