Staying online: How women balance access and privacy

Illustration by Aniqa Haider

Aymen Khan, owner of a home based crafts business, was going through the routine of just another day when a query regarding her hand painted bookmarks and literary decorations popped up on her screen. Business had been slow due to COVID-19 lockdown, and she was grateful for any engagement that came her way. But the query that seemed innocent enough turned out to be far more than that. 

The message came from a young man enquiring about her work. What started off as a casual exchange about her business – which she assumed would lead to more questions about the products and eventually a sale – quickly became an uncomfortable and intrusive conversation regarding her personal life. The supposed potential customer started asking her about her relationship status, the cafes’ she liked frequenting, and more. What bothered her the most was her inability to immediately identify the nature of these messages she had assumed were work related. Aymen had been warned by multiple family members before she started her business about the dangers of having public profiles and sharing her personal contact information online, but she had powered through the criticism in hopes that her professionalism would serve as a barrier to any undue advances. But as the messages turned progressively more lewd and she started to receive calls at odd hours, maintaining that boundary became a struggle.

The 25 year old business owner shared that this was not the first time she had gotten unwanted attention and unsolicited advances because of her business, but it was the only time it had become difficult to ignore. Eventually she was forced to change her business number to get rid of the contact, and move all her operations from her whatsapp business contact to her Facebook page that she had set up to promote her products. Despite her best efforts, this had a major impact on her customer engagement and, thus her own mental health. A lot of her clients had been older women who preferred the ease of whatsapp over social media and didn’t seem to make the switch to Instagram with the same ease.

“I guess I wasn’t completely surprised,” Aymen said, “I was always expecting it after all the stories you hear about women being harassed online but maybe I was too optimistic for myself.” 

Aymen’s experience is shared by many women on the internet, who have had to deal with a privacy breach due to misuse of information. The shared nature of these instances has led to women warning other other women, on the internet as well as offline, of these experiences, and coming up with strategies to prevent major privacy and safety violations.

Sharing contact information is essential to operate, home-based, online businesses often run by women, so that their customers can connect with them, however, women find that this information is regularly misused to make unsolicited advances at them. And this is only one example of the several ways in which they find their personal information being used beyond the scope of what it had been intended for.

For instance, Women have frequently complained about safety concerns on ride-sharing services such as Careem and Uber, which has resulted in an increased wariness about the access that riders at these services have to their customers’ information. Privacy violations through ride-sharing apps has particularly been a focus of discussion amongst members of online women’s groups. Since drivers have access to the customer’s contact number and addresses, it is feared that this potentially puts women who use these services in danger. 

It is even more disappointing when this information is misused from official channels deemed to be secure. This includes contact information from banking forms, which can prove to be particularly dangerous for women given the detailed personal information that banks require at the time of opening an account.

Hiba* is a 29-year-old marketing professional from Karachi who says that she was approached by a staff member of the bank where she maintains her account for the past 5 years. “The man approached me on my WhatsApp telling me that he was really happy to meet me at the branch earlier that day, and that he wanted to be my friend,” Hiba says. She adds that he went on to contact her on her social media accounts, including Facebook and LinkedIn, when she blocked him on WhatsApp. She recognises it as a ‘blatant breach’ of her privacy. “My information on the bank’s file was only for them to ensure the service that they are providing me is uninterrupted. Instead, it is passed around among staff members, and I’m then contacted with unsolicited advances of friendship.” She blocked him from all her social media accounts.

Faiza Yousuf, the founder of Women In Tech, a women’s only community on Facebook, shares that to her, online privacy is an important issue. Women in Tech aims to provide women technologists in Pakistan with support, advice and opportunities in their careers and create a more inclusive and accepting environment for women in the technological sector in Pakistan. She says that online privacy is maintained when “my identity and information is kept private, safe, and secure and can’t be used without my explicit consent.”

But she also recognises that maintaining this level of online privacy is still a hope for a far off future. According to Faiza, we still live in a society where women have to deal with harassment and unwanted advances on a regular basis, and often face consequences that are far more serious for them than they are for the perpetrators. Faiza also says that these actions have become normalised because harassers are aware of the impunity they enjoy in our society. “In their minds, it is their right to receive attention and recognition [from women they are approaching with their unsolicited advances], and women shouldn’t say no to them,” she adds.

Pakistani society is deeply patriarchal and amongst many other things, polices the activities of women in public spaces. In instances where women’s mobility in the real world is restricted, access to the internet provides women avenues to work from within their homes. It allows them a certain level of financial and emotional independence that was previously controlled by men around them. But such experiences bring into question their online safety. While there is still a barrier that prevents in-person contact, having to deal with uncomfortable and unsolicited advances through misuse of personal information can change the way many women perceive their online interactions, and in extension experience the internet. 

As more and more cases come to light, and awareness around the issue of online privacy grows, women might have to deal with greater policing regarding their work online. 

Delayed justice

Accessing what is meant to be private information is unjustifiable in its own right, but it gets worse when it leads to harassment which can cause mental stress and interfere with everyday activities. Given the common nature of the incidents of online violence against women, the Director of National Response Center for Cyber Crimes (NR3C) – the cyber crime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) – Waqar Ahmed Chohan said that between 2018 and 2019 blackmailing and harassment over social media portals were the most reported cyber crimes in the country. Unfortunately, lack of resources provided to FIA means that women do not get the needed legal recourse from the authority. 

Chohan talks about how the rising cases will impact the Wing’s capacity to deal with complaints. “It is anticipated as per the calculations that cyber crimes related cases will increase in the future and may go beyond 100,000 complaints a year,” he added. However, in 2019 the FIA was only able to take up 27,000 cases due to a lack of investigation officers. Absence and delay in support by the FIA means that many women who are victims of cyber harassment are left to deal with these issues on their own, and feel that despite having a cybercrime law, the system betrays them. 

For Shaheera, a 28 year old journalist from Karachi, the experience that she had to deal with may not have been surprising, but it was upsetting nonetheless. She shares that she has always been a bit wary of oversharing information online, but even then her number was available to a lot of people because of how frequently she uses Foodpanda, a food delivery service. 

“One time, a Foodpanda rider sent me a message at around 2 am. It was harmless, a goodnight picture with some cartoon on it. But I still did not like it and blocked the contact right away,” she shared. Despite acknowledging that the approach may have been harmless, Shaheera said that the incident made her feel uncomfortable because it showed her the ease with which strangers could get in touch with her. In this case, this was someone who also knew where she lived. The incident made her change the way she dealt with deliveries and she now chooses to share her husband’s contact number instead. 

Concerns of harassers losing their job

While these changes may seem small, it says a lot about the way women are forced to navigate their lives around the actions of men who feel entitled to attention through overt breach of privacy. Interestingly enough, many of the women who fall victim to such advances point out how they didn’t want to endanger the jobs of these men. Hiba*, the 29-year-old marketing professional who was contacted by a bank’s worker, says, “One of the reasons why I didn’t report the incident was the fact that if by any chance the bank decided to take action, the man could lose his job.”

Nadia Ellahi, who also shared an experience with a delivery rider where the constant calls and harassment led her to confront the rider himself. 

She says, “I once ordered food via my phone number for lunch at the office and the delivery rider [who had my number, later] started calling and harassing me. I figured out quite quickly who he was, since he had called me when he delivered the food. When I threatened to go to his employer he apologised and asked me to not complain about him as he would lose his job.” Despite her threats, she did not follow through with them as she felt that there was no point in putting his job at risk after she had confronted him and dealt with it. 

Shaheera also went through a similar thought process. Although she did get in touch with Foodpanda, and sent them screenshots of the chat upon their request, she added, “I also requested them not to fire the guy because I didn’t want to be a reason someone loses their job. And who knows, maybe it was the only job that provides him money to feed his family.” For her, the idea of reporting an incident to cyber crime [wing of FIA] or relevant authorities could only be considered if and when an incident seemed to ‘get out of hand’. Until then, she didn’t believe the authorities would do anything. 

To see women jump through hoops and change their own behaviours to counter or prevent online harassment and mitigate risk of privacy violations, while still looking out for those who forced them to do so says a lot about the deeply entrenched patriarchy around us. Even when it is a woman’s own safety at risk, instead of holding the man endangering her accountable, or expecting better from the legal system, society holds her responsible to fix the problem.

Balancing privacy and access online

The measures many women take to protect themselves may be helpful in keeping away unwanted advances and protect their personal information, but they do so by curbing other aspects of their life. Balancing risks of privacy violations with their work online can be harder when women aren’t aware of their own digital rights. A report by the Digital Rights Foundation found that 40 percent of women in Pakistan had experienced some sort of harassment on social media, and it had impacted their online behaviours, for example 70 percent said that they were afraid to post photos online. This fear was coupled with the fact that 72 percent of the total respondents of the same study were also unaware of cyber crime laws in the country. 

For many women, the abuse of their privacy online goes as far as their personal profiles. A social media user who wishes to remain anonymous, shared that a public post in support of the Aurat March led to trolls sending her horrifying messages that included lewd comments, threats of physical violence, rape and even death. 

She shared that the attacks were mostly sent by fake accounts that made it much harder to report and seemed to be coming from a coordinated group. And she was aware that she was not the only victim; this group of men had attacked multiple women who spoke out on social media and in doing so, they had made online spaces increasingly unsafe for the women they had targeted. The intensity of the attacks led to her completely deactivating all of her social media accounts for a few months, and almost a year later, she says that she still maintains a very low-key social media presence because of the fear of reliving that trauma. 

In many ways, privacy and freedom on the internet should guarantee an online presence without having to self censor, or creating barriers out of the fear of violence. It should allow for greater independence. Leading a group of women technologists for 4 years now, Faiza knows how important it is to have access to opportunities that can provide women with knowledge, growth and financial autonomy. “We see and know about families where they won’t allow women to use the internet. This hinders their progress as it limits their opportunities for learning and becoming financially independent,” she says of the restrictions women can face out of fear of harassment online. 

But unfortunately, many women feel like they can’t contest the restrictions placed upon them because they think they are justified, and a sense of self-blame lingers on after every incident of violence they experience. Shaheera’s decision to use her husband’s contact instead of her own is a decision similar to the ones made by many other women who have to choose to rely on the men in their lives to feel more secure in navigating public spaces, both online and offline. But the onus should not be on women to change their behaviours to ensure their safety. In doing so we grant greater impunity to men who make online and offline spaces dangerous for women.

Rather the responsibility lies with the state, society and the perpetrator to make sure we live in a country that allows women to pursue opportunities without them having to look over their shoulder at every turn. “Companies need to create policies for workplace safety as well as for consumer data protection and they need to enforce these policies. This is extremely important, especially for companies, like Foodpanda, Careem, and Uber,” says Faiza. She also adds, “There is immense potential for women if and when they get access to the internet. They can skill up, find work, and even start their own businesses. We need better awareness, better policies and laws, effective enforcement of those policies and laws, more opportunities for women to get trained in digital skills, and cheaper and safer access to technology.” But until we also start addressing the mindsets around us, these changes will be of little benefit. It is time that the blame is put where it is due, and it is perpetrators who are held accountable and not the victims who are already grappling with incidents that are both mentally and physically taxing.

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