Anonymity, accountability and the public sphere

16 May 2012

I found myself being confronted with the issue of anonymity and accountability in different ways at the AWID Forum.

At the Feminist Tech Exchange (FTX) and Connect Your Rights events that took place just before the Forum, we discussed about the different and increasingly sophisticated ways that internet technologies have been used to erode any sense of anonymity online.

From facial recognition software being used by governments to identify people who participate in street demonstrations, to the collection, aggregation and sale of our data and activities by internet platform providers that we rely on so heavily for our online engagement such as Google and Facebook - it seems like the internet is significantly shifting from a distributed space of multiplicity to a consolidated space of multinational private enterprise.

The problem with pictures

At the FTX, shared their development of a software called ObscuraCam, that can enable android smart phone users to easily obscure faces of the people captured through the phone’s camera. This is quite an innovative solution to ensure that privacy and anonymity is designed into the technology, and that we do not make the assumption that everyone is okay with images of their faces being captured and shared into spaces outside of their control.

We discussed the ways that this might be useful, and the most immediate examples were around street demonstrations and the police. But having done a lot of work on violence against women, sexuality and technology, I was thinking that the violator is not necessarily always the state. In fact, most of the time, it’s simply people around us. And how do we deal with memory or changes in contexts? For example, I might be okay for us to share private photographs for now, but how can I still maintain some kind of control over the dissemination of my digitally represented self when things change?

One of the things that ObscuraCam allows is for the user to tag someone’s face as saying yes, this person has given explicit permission for her photograph to be used. This is quite cool, as it immediately also makes the user aware of the importance of consent. But consent to what? Are there limitations to it? Will consent be in perpetuity, for any kinds of situation, or can it be just limited to say, one media article?

And how would technology design be able to allow for such changes. Not easy, but a question worth asking given the many minors and teenagers who are charged for child pornography (!) offenses because they shared private, nude photographs of their exes with others.

“Say no to Article 112” campaign and face recognition

On the 3rd day of the Forum, a really awesome feminist social movement activist from Thailand organised a solidarity action as part of the “Say no to Article 112” campaign. Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code criminalises anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent”, with potential imprisonment of three to fifteen years.

This law, also known as the les majeste law, has been used to block thousands of websites and imprison ordinary internet users and activists in the country. So of course, when she came with the handmade poster and digital camera, almost everyone was keen to show their support.

But when the poster was created and plans were made for it to be distributed through social media like Facebook - which allows for others to tag your face with your account and has an in-built face recognition software – what are the implications? Given the heavy-handed way that the Thai authorities deal with potential lese majeste offenses, would this put supporters at risk for travel into the country?

How much are governments using facial recognition software to
track people’s activities beyond stamping of the passport?

As we know, almost every immigration check-point now obligates some kind of biometric data collection – information from passports, digital fingerprints and photographs. How much are governments using facial recognition software to connect to and track people’s participation and activities beyond stamping of the passport and other official businesses?

And if push comes to shove, or if the price is right, would Facebook be compelled to sell their user data to governments? Even if they don’t for principled reasons, what is to stop some governments from forming some kind of under-the-radar quasi-private company to purchase this on ostentatiously market research reasons?

Taking control of technology

But does raising questions like this paralyze us from ever making a public and political stand about any issue? It’s a tricky balance between knowing how far digital technology developments are able to track, monitor and place us under surveillance, and how we can circumvent and engage with this issue.

For example, there are ways you can try and beat facial recognition software by painting geometric shapes on parts of your face, or using different pictures for different contexts to make it harder to aggregate.

As we rely more and more on social media for our activism,
knowing about security and privacy is really key.

As we rely more and more on social media for our activism, knowing about security and privacy is really key. This is both in terms of practical, hands-on stuff that we can do everyday to simply be more secure in our communication practices, like making good passwords, as well as understanding the political dynamics of internet governance.

For example, how to make privacy by design into technology a matter of public policy, or engaging in debates on framework of principles that should guide laws and policy on the internet, or kicking up a huge fuss when governments bow down to industry pressure and start signing bilateral agreements to have insanely expansive laws that allows them to track, cut off internet access, seize equipments, or even send you to jail for sharing files online.

Security also means moving away from our comfort zones and getting immersed in the sometimes,
incredibly masculine world of internet technology.

It also means moving away from our comfort zones and getting immersed in the sometimes, incredibly masculine world of internet technology. But then again, voting used to be something exclusively masculine, so this shouldn’t be a barrier for feminist engagement! Especially since we are in this really interesting time of women and girls using and innovating on digital technologies almost at par with men and boys. Which levels the playing field somewhat more than say, wireless radio.

Now onto the curious politics of anonymity

Another event that happened during the Forum was the circulation of a letter that critiqued the level of inclusion at a discussion session on “Women’s Rights and Transitions to Democracy in the MENA region”. One of the responses they received was that the letter wasn’t signed – there were no names, and no organisations.

It was simply a letter stating the issues and recommendations for improvement. The issue was I think, around accountability – if no one signs it, then who can be held accountable for raising the issues, and to be engaged into further conversation?

But the counter response was equally interesting – which in essence, calls for a movement away from the personal and subjective, and to instead, focus on the ideas which is borne out of the collective. This is also deconstructing the idea of the “author” – something copyright advocates are promoting heavily. In that there is such thing as an author of an idea, and that the author needs to be recognized and compensated (conveniently glossing over the fact that the one that gets the most compensation is the middle person, i.e. the agents, publishers and broadcasters).

Instead, movements like the ones on Free Software and copyleft call for an understanding of knowledge and creation as necessarily collaborative. So the processes and tools we create should enable this instead of thinking that there can be one sole person to be credited.

Anonymity also protects us from surveillance.

Anonymity also protects us from surveillance – whether it’s by companies for market research purposes, governments for control over its citizens or members of society to uphold current norms and ideals.

I’ve been involved in a project called EROTICS for the past couple of years, and with a team of phenomenal activists and researchers, we’ve been looking at how the internet is increasingly becoming an important public sphere for the negotiation of rights, especially for those who are denied access to other spaces due to their sexuality or gender identity.

The research found that anonymity is central to the internet’s characteristics as a viable public sphere for democratic deliberations. For example, anonymity provides transgender people in South Africa a safe space to find out about medical procedures and to construct their gender identities, and young women in India strategies to push the cultural boundaries of acceptable femininity and to overcome social surveillance by family members and partners.

In the early days of internet development, the promise of textual interaction
to destabilise rigid identities was celebrated.

The visibility of actions by Anonymous in the past year has also raised the contentious dimensions of the issue of anonymity. One of the primary mode of belonging in the community is to denounce any form of personal identity. This is partly in response to the culture of “celebrity” that is permeating current online engagement.

In the early days of internet development, the promise of textual interaction to destabilise rigid identities was celebrated - especially in terms of finally getting rid of gender binaries and how it can fix ideas and opportunities for men and women into very unequal terms.

After the initial euphoria, and especially with the advent of social networking as a primary means of interaction online, we have moved instead to an age of “celebrity” – celebrity bloggers, how many friends you have on Facebook, how many followers on Twitter, what gadgets you use, what you eat etc.

Anonymity can be an important strategy and
politics of movement building and collective action.

Online identity has become something important to carefully construct online, as it can have huge impact on your credibility and worth in other spaces. For example, potential employers vetting Facebook accounts before deciding on hiring.

In a context of over-celebration of celebrity-hood – also augmented by the politics of Hollywood (which needs to be reminded is a big lobbyist on current copyright and intellectual property law policy) - the principles and politics of anonymity has its attraction. It’s like a breath of fresh air, to remove the self as being of less importance than the politics. And given the reality of “divas” that exists in every movement and industry - including the women’s movement - it can be an important strategy and politics of movement building and collective action.

Accountability and Anonymity

But what about the issue of accountability? I am reminded at another AWID workshop session that the “public sphere” is not a homogenous space. Issues of gender, class, sexuality etc, shapes its dimensions and dynamics. The session, organized by Nazra Feminist Studies Egypt, spoke about how when working class women decide to participate in the demonstrations at Tahrir square, they do so at great and different personal costs. This includes cost to livelihood, social exclusion and targeted sexual harassment.

The same applies to the “public sphere” of the internet. Not all is equal, and it bears reminding. Which is one of the reasons why I am hesitant to unequivocally support the action of Anonymous. Different sections of community have different capacities and risks to bear when they enter into collective anonymous spaces that take specific kinds of action.

To be part of Anonymous, you have to be pretty confident
about your own security and privacy skills.

To be part of Anonymous, you have to be pretty confident about your own security and privacy skills, to be able to cover your tracks, and avoid being targeted for breaching any social or community conduct, whether inadvertently or not. And their targeted DDOS attacks on government websites have also given fodder to states to beef up legislation on internet regulation and surveillance.

What does this mean for the majority of internet users, especially women’s rights and sexual rights activists who are still largely absent in internet development and governance spaces, to have engagement and accountability in such a context? So when is it an important political principle and strategy to be anonymous, and when is it important to have a name or an institution to ensure accountability?

I’m not really sure to be honest. I think it takes contextual analysis into the particular dynamics of a situation, and especially, to understand the heterogeneous and diverse makeup of any particular “public”. What are the barriers to access and engagement, including costs, capacity and risks, and the duties and responsibilities to the community it seeks to represent? And how can “publics” be shaped in a way that ensures greatest inclusivity, especially to those who are most marginalised or discriminated against?

As with every political engagement towards meaningful transformation, what this needs are more feminist lenses in interrogation and participation.

Photo by RenderDonkey. Used with permission under Creative Commons License 2.0.

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