Choose Privacy Week 2016 – Privacy, Injustice, and Self-Respect
by Anna Lauren Hoffman
Two Saturdays ago, I (and pretty much everyone else on the Internet) sat in awe watching Lemonade, Beyoncé’s epic visual album. At one point during it, Malcolm X’s voice declares: “the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman.” Coupled with her recent video for “Formation,” the grand theme of Beyoncé’s work is made explicit in those words—Lemonade is a powerful assertion of Black women’s self-respect in the face of brutal indifference.
It is through Yoncé-tinted glasses that I consider this year’s Choose Privacy Week theme: “Respect Me, Respect My Privacy.”
Deceptively simple, the theme communicates some powerful ideas, like that respecting someone’s privacy is integral to respecting someone generally. But we should be cautious of casting the issue of privacy only in “me”-centered terms. Though we all deserve privacy and respect, not all of us have equally meaningful access to these important goods.
Underscoring Beyoncé’s (and certainly Malcolm X’s) claims is an understanding that institutionalized social and political injustices represent a kind of disrespect—one that shapes not only how marginalized groups are perceived by others, but also how they are able to perceive themselves. In other words, injustice also shapes individuals’ abilities to conceive of and exercise self-respect.
By spotlighting specific marginalized populations, the connections between privacy and self-respect become obvious. Affording others opportunities, means, and space for expression and meaningful reflection—whether privately or in public—is one way we support others in their pursuit of self-respect. Guarantees against undue intrusion or forced disclosure of private information signal to individuals that their identities, aspirations, and goals are valuable and worthy of respect.
Conversely, unjust patterns of trust in society do the opposite: they expose certain individuals or groups and not others to heightened and unjustified scrutiny, sending a signal that their lives are not equally deserving of respect.
When teaching privacy to my students, I’ve used Beyoncé’s “Formation” video to convey this idea. Her gathering of Black women’s bodies in spaces typified by surveillance technology—from public pools to streets and parking lots—lays bare the disciplinary power of state and corporate surveillance. Through performance, Beyoncé and her dancers struggle to liberate themselves from the limiting and often violent structures that seek to devalue their lives. Structures that, for example, reduce Black women to derogatory and hypersexualized stereotypes.
In doing so, they remind us that–from the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. to stop-and-frisk policies to the tracking of Black Lives Matter activists–surveillance in the United States cannot be wholly divorced from race.
Nor can it be divorced from ethnicity and religion. While many people rightly decried Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s suggestion that we increase surveillance of “Muslim neighborhoods,” it’s important to point out that this unsavory proposal is already reality for Middle Easterners and Americans of Middle Eastern descent who, especially since 9/11, live under conditions of heightened scrutiny and surveillance.
The connection between privacy and self-respect is further evident in discussions of gender identity. Consider the recent rash of “bathroom bills” aimed at preventing transgender people from using facilities that match their gender identity. These efforts prioritize the supposed privacy concerns of the powerful at the expense of trans people—and especially Trans Women of Color—at dramatically greater risk of poverty, violence, and suicide.
Such proposals send a particularly pernicious message to trans kids and students: deny your truth or risk being legally targeted for hate and harassment (possibly for a bounty).
In terms of technology, it’s important to remember that many existing informational and administrative systems not only fail to prevent, but actually enable this kind of discrimination. From birth certificates to checkboxes on forms to categories built into databases, we too readily ignore trans individuals’ own assertions of their identity in favor of the “truth” of a rigid “M” or “F” logged somewhere in a filing cabinet or on a computer.
Beyond identity, opportunities for privacy and the self-respect it can afford are also shaped by socioeconomic considerations. Often, the technologies or services with the best tools for protecting one’s privacy come with a steep price tag —like iPhones with their strong built-in encryption. Since people of lower socioeconomic standing are more likely to own cheaper mobile devices (like many Android phones, for example), they are simultaneously exposed to greater privacy and security risks.
Ultimately, these unjust patterns of distrust, scrutiny, and vulnerability communicate to disadvantaged groups that their dignity and privacy are not valued as highly as the dignity and privacy of others–that their lives and self-respect are not valued as highly as others.
Finally, it might also be useful to turn the lens on ourselves. As privacy activists and scholars, we must be careful not to reify in writing and in policy the same injustices that impinge on the dignity of marginalized groups of which we may or may not be members.
For example, we shouldn’t simply cite examples of racialized surveillance, the outing or harassment of LGBTQ individuals, or the vulnerabilities of the impoverished without also foregrounding and lifting up those whose experiences lay the foundations on top of which we build our scholarly and intellectual capital.
By that same measure, I—as a white woman—must note the delicateness of invoking Beyoncé to make a point about privacy broadly, and not about Black women specifically. Though her work has inspired many of us who are not Black women, it’s important to recognize that her work isn’t at the same time for us. Instead, we should be mindful to center Black women even when invoking their work for other purposes.
Similarly, using examples and illustrations rooted in marginalized lives may lend discussions of privacy greater urgency, but they are not separable from the particular oppressions that make those examples compelling in the first place. As we work toward a more just privacy landscape, we would do well to start from that point.
Anna Lauren Hoffmann is a researcher and scholar working at the intersections of information, technology, culture, and ethics. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher with the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. You can learn more about her work at annaeveryday.com or follow her on Twitter (@annaeveryday).