With the U.S. Justice Department reporting that women have been at greater risk than men for privacy and stalking victimization, it’s more important than ever for women to protect their online privacy. Consider the recent Wall Street Journal report about a CEO who “spied on” multiple women by hiring “dozens of surveillance operatives” to stalk the women online and tail them, sometimes 24-hours a day. This isn’t the first time reports of the predatory exploitation of technology have come to light; the existence of “stalker apps” riddled with spyware that can be used by abusive partners to monitor and track victims demonstrate how weak privacy protections put women in harm’s way.
It is tougher than it should be for all consumers – but especially for women, people of color, and other vulnerable groups – to shield their data and online privacy from abuse and misuse because there’s no comprehensive federal law in place that provides the them with necessary protections. Unfortunately, Congress looks unlikely to pass new protections this year.
The thousands of “digital footprints” we leave every time we go online involves information that search engines, advertisers, websites, and hundreds of nameless companies use to track us – often without our knowledge or consent. For example, this summer the Washington Post ran a privacy test that documented the pervasive existence of online trackers. While these tools are most often used to support routine business practices that keep the internet running, they can also be leveraged for more invasive and malicious purposes.
For women, unique digital privacy pitfalls abound. In April, the mobile app Ovia, which lets women record personal medical information involving their attempts to conceive, was found to be secretly sharing health data in a supposedly anonymous form to the human resources department of an employer. For Filipinas that perform domestic work or act as caregivers in communities across the country, widespread use of largely untested facial recognition technology embedded in home security systems—built by Amazon and others—presents yet another challenge that touches on issues of digital safety, security, and consent. For example, studies have demonstrated that facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies women and people of color.
No one should have to tolerate these invasions of privacy. Yet, without a comprehensive privacy framework in place, women inside and outside of our community have little recourse. These consumer protection gaps are why Congress must work diligently and swiftly to reach an agreement on comprehensive privacy legislation that applies across the digital ecosystem.
The only sustainable solution to protect consumers from harm requires that we hold all companies with an internet presence to the same set of standards and rules. At a minimum, we need a foundational legal framework that would require any company asking for consumers’ information – especially location and personally identifiable details – to disclosure what information is kept, for how long, and with whom it is shared and for what purpose. Giving consumers better control over how their personal data is used and helping them make informed choices about how they share is an urgent and necessary step toward a more safe and secure digital environment.
Congress’ failure to pass a national online privacy standard this year is serious given the nonstop list of online privacy scandals involving today’s dominant internet players and platforms. As the explosion of new digital products and services shows little signs of abating, the need for a national privacy standard will only become more important in the coming years. Simply put, women and people of color cannot afford inaction. Congress must act on their responsibility to help keep all consumers safe online.
By Marily Mondejar, CEO, Filipina Women’s Network