The question in the headline elicits a complicit smile. Have you ever? Or have you spied on their new partner? Or have you googled someone you just met and liked a lot? At the interactive session on “Privacy and pleasure” that was held as part of the 2012 AWID Forum there were a variety of participants, of diverse ages, that raised their hands, recognizing that both Facebook and Google are tools not just for finding friends, but also for watching and following the lives of the people who interest us, or that we should have stopped being interested in, but who are still in some corner of our hearts.
Beyond sentimental anecdotes, this should worry us. Because just as we can watch the lives of others, other people also can also watch ours, and the consequences can be troublesome, if not disagreeable, and even violent. A colleague who is active in social movements in her country told of being persecuted via Twitter by her fiance's ex-girlfriend, who sent aggressive messages and called her a “cardboard feminist.” She had never heard of the existence of this woman, and the aggressive messages came in at all hours, disturbing her privacy. She decided to block her, but was left wondering what her fiancé's ex is twittering about her on other accounts.
We could tell dozens of similar histories, where privacy ends and the private lives of people are exposed in the worst way. Do we do things to avoid this? Do we know what safety measures to take in social networks, or does it not worry us? Just as information and communication technologies allow us to share texts, audio, photos, videos, and our daily lives with friends and family, they can also be used to steal an identity, create a false profile, hack accounts, and create sites that discriminate against women and use hateful language, surveillance, harassment and even aggression and threats against women's rights activists.
In a debate during an interactive session on security and privacy, one of the panellists asked the audience: “Who should protect to us? Some government regulation, companies like Facebook that offer the services, or us ourselves?” The answer was clear, though it is important that both governments and companies offer regulations and services so that platforms and tools are safe and not infiltrated, if it worries us, then it is us as users that should adopt measures measures so that our communications are safe. “We do not want anybody to protect our activity online”, one participant said. “We want our rights to also be respected on the internet, that is all”.
The discussion also considered the enormous profits that companies like Facebook and Google earn using a public domain like the internet. Their safety measures should be the best of all! But perhaps they are not interested, because, of course, they also earn money when we spy on our exes!