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The importance of digital privacy for marginalized groups

Web Foundation · October 26, 2021

This guest post is by Callum Tennent, Editor at @Top10VPN. The text represents the author’s opinion and not necessarily the Web Foundation’s position.

Data privacy has become a buzzword for tech companies who have wised up to the fact it’s now something we care about. While digital privacy is something we should all prioritize, it’s especially important to those already facing discrimination or persecution offline. For marginalized groups, the ways in which data is collected and often shared with third parties can put their lives in danger.

For members of the LGBTQ+ community — and particularly people living in ultra-conservative societies — digital footprints pose a significant risk. When a person visits a site about transitioning gender or downloads a queer dating app, this data can be collected by third parties and compiled with other data, such as IP address and device information, to form a      profile on that person. This information can then either be bought or seized, often legally, by authorities and used to identify LGBTQ+ people, including those who have not made their sexual or gender identity public.

This has been the case in Egypt, where police have used apps like Grindr to track, arrest and sometimes even torture gay people. Evidence suggests that the geolocation tracking features      on these apps have led to some of these arrests, causing campaigners to warn against their use. Meanwhile in Russia, Tinder is required to store its user data (including messages and pictures) on local servers. Given Russia’s long-standing persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s alarming that authorities have jurisdiction over this data.

The types of data collected and shared by these apps can also heighten the risks to users. OkCupid and Grindr have previously come under fire for sharing highly sensitive data such as a users’ sexuality, religious beliefs and HIV status with third parties. Again, once this data has been collected it could easily end up in the hands of authorities.

While our online activity can give away details about the most intimate parts of our lives, even information that we choose to share publicly may end up being used against us. This is the reality for those currently living in Afghanistan. Following the region’s takeover by the Taliban, Afghans have tried to delete evidence of their more liberal past from the internet to avoid persecution. Social media profiles in particular are a treasure trove of information for the Taliban. Some members of the LGBTQ+ community have even been contacted by members of the Taliban via these platforms.

In the US online surveillance tactics are being used to target migrants and single them out for deportation. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has used social media monitoring and information bought from data brokers like CLEAR to track down and arrest migrants.

Data brokers in the US pose a threat to all internet users. Many companies sell personal information online for a small fee, including phone numbers and addresses. This could do serious damage in the hands of a bad actor and is especially concerning for women, LGBTQ+ folk and communities of color who are often on the receiving end of threats of violence. Not only that, but this data can be sold by data brokers to landlords, healthcare providers and employers, leaving people open to discrimination based on their online activities.

Better data privacy frameworks need to be put in place to prevent our personal information from being accessed and used in this way. At the same time, there are steps we can all take to protect our personal data.

How can marginalized people increase their digital privacy?

It’s important to recognize that for many in marginalized communities, social media and other online forums provide a place where people can explore their identity and form a community with others like them. Safety should not mean having to come offline. Thankfully, there are other privacy precautions people can take.

When using social media, don’t post your live location or give away your home or work address. Even better, make your social media accounts private so that authorities don’t have a window into your private life.

Switch to a privacy-focused browser like Mozilla Firefox. Firefox blocks third party trackers by default which will help stop brokers from getting hold of your browsing data.Similarly, switching to a search engine like DuckDuckGo will help keep your data private. Unlike Google, DuckDuckGo doesn’t use cookies or store information such as your browsing history or IP address. If it’s not stored at all, it can’t get into the wrong hands.

If you live in the US, there are ways you can get data brokers to delete information about you as well as services you can pay to do this for you. It’s definitely worth considering this if you believe you may be at risk from physical harm. In the UK, the ICO has also issued advice on how to get companies to delete your data.

Additional safety recommendations for apps

For queer people using LGBTQ+ apps in conservative places, there are some specific precautions you can take. Keep information about your home, work address or other social media off your dating profile and avoid using your full name. You should also avoid keeping screenshots from the app on your phone or in the cloud. If either are accessed by the police, these screenshots are evidence of your activity on the app.

Article 19 has done notable work across Egypt helping Grindr add extra safety features to their app. In 130 countries, you can now change the way the app appears on your phone to look like a calculator or other utility. There is also an option to add a pin code. Users in high-risk locations should make use of these features in case their phone is seized by authorities. And always be cautious when meeting up with new people from these platforms.

Of course, it’s not just dating apps that put marginalized people at risk. Individuals should always check any app’s privacy policies in case of dodgy data sharing practices and intrusions. If an app is tracking your location or has excessive permissions, such as the ability to access your contacts or camera for no good reason, it’s a good idea to avoid it altogether.

Companies must do more to prioritize their most vulnerable users

It’s in everyone’s best interests to protect their privacy online, but for marginalized groups it can literally mean the difference between life and death. Just as designing with accessibility in mind has increasingly become the norm to avoid excluding the visually impaired and those with disabilities, tech companies must consider the safety of marginalized users of their products. Privacy and app security must form an integral part of a product’s build and ensure the safety of marginalized groups from the get-go.

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