Friday, June 25, 2010

Technology, privacy and domestic violence

Privacy advocacy in Ireland faces a number of challenges. Often it's met with the old canard "if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear" - implying that privacy is something for wrongdoers and criminals. A related problem has been a lack of wider public concern about privacy issues: while occasional issues (such as the recent series of data breaches) trigger public interest, more often issues such as data retention tend to be seen as rather esoteric and remote from people's day to day lives.

This makes a recent story on domestic violence charity Women's Aid all the more significant in showing that privacy issues should be of much wider concern:
In its annual report for 2009, to be released today, the charity has noted an increase in disclosures of women being abused, controlled and stalked through technology.

Director of the charity Margaret Martin said it was very concerned at the development.

She said callers disclosed that current or former boyfriends, husbands and partners were using many forms of technology to control, coerce and intimidate them.

Women had disclosed that home and mobile phone calls were monitored, as well as their texts. Some women also found cameras secretly installed to monitor them in their own homes.

Abusers tracked and scrutinised online use and demanded access to private e-mail and social networking accounts.

Some women said their partners and ex-partners had placed lies about them on internet sites. Others had been photographed and filmed without their consent, sometimes having sex, and the images were uploaded to the internet...

“Quite often it prevents women from seeking help as they fear their partner will see that they have rung a helpline, looked at a domestic violence website or spoken of the abuse to their friends, family or colleagues in an e-mail or text.”
This story also reflects a significant wider trend not just in online privacy but in digital rights generally - slowly but surely these rights are being recognised as important by mainstream civil society groups. For example, earlier this week in the UK the National Union of Journalists agreed to support legal challenges to the Digital Economy Act while in Europe the consumers' group BEUC recently adopted a specific strategy on consumer rights in the digital environment. This trend is important in that it promises to enlist greater support for digital rights - but presents a new challenge for digital rights groups to liaise with and educate other civil society groups.

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