A partial portrait of digital violence and surveillance against women in Colombia

This is guest piece written by Amalia Toled of Colombia-based Karisma Foundation for Privacy International.

Colombia is a country that has been at war for more than 50 years and its security policies and practices have been built to defeat the internal enemy. This has meant well-equipped and trained military forces, intelligence agencies with broad powers, the acquisition of state-of-the-art surveillance technology, and citizen approval of any security measure, regardless of its intrusion, because anything goes to protect the population from the enemy, whether it is the guerrilla, the paramilitaries, criminal organizations, common thefts or anyone.

In this scenario, as is typical of macho societies, men, for the most part, are the decision makers, strategists, and those who implement security, intelligence, and counterintelligence measures. Unfortunately, women are given little active involvement in this scheme and they are the first victims of the violence associated with the armed conflict. Women have been displaced, killed, raped, and the crimes against them are more than the number of victims because often women are the victim of several of these crimes.

Although the peace process is beginning to bear fruit — 2016 has had the least number of violent deaths in the past 52 years — , the surveillance systems and the legal framework that regulate them remain broad enough to consider that digital communications and privacy of citizen are compromised. For example, intelligence agencies have the legal and technical capacity to monitor the electromagnetic spectrum without requiring a court order. Telecom operators, for their part, have a legal obligation to open back doors to the judicial police. There are state surveillance systems that are of questionable legality, but are funded with a high investment of public funds. Since 2011, the government has been developing a cellular registration system that centralizes sensitive personal information and grants access to such information to any authority without a court order.

How does state surveillance affect women? While it is difficult to ascertain a complete picture of how state surveillance affects women, there are numerous examples of state surveillance against specific groups, such as journalists, human rights defenders and political opponents. But most studies and reports lack a thorough gender analysis to understand the forms and impact of these questionable practices on women.

During 2016, Karisma Foundation held workshops with women journalists to understand the digital violence they are victims of. We found out that digital violence against them is certainly different in form and seeks, above all, to affect their privacy: their reputation, their family life, and their intimate relationships. Threatening a woman journalist with a warning message that includes data gather through surveillance, saying she should take care of her children — where they whereabouts are — so that nothing happens to them or that she should not be surprised if she is raped on her way home — indicating where her home is — , it is the most common modus operandi when the victim is a woman, not when the victims are their male counterparts.

There are an increasing amount of people coming online in the country, particularly accessing the internet on their mobile devices, and we must look at what is happening with women who begin to use digital technologies in their day to day life. In 2015, a study with more than 757 women from poor urban areas in Bogotá showed that this population is already connected to the internet through smartphones. But that connection, according to the study, is still limited to Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube as means for social activities and entertainment (e.g. watching music videos).

By deepening women’s access to and use of the internet, we can identify that there is a great deal of illiteracy, on the one hand, of how technology offers a world of opportunities for the exercise of rights and the empowerment of women and, on the other, on how to implement safer practices when getting online. And this lack of knowledge does not even consider the legal framework and abusive state surveillance practices and much lesser the vigilance that other actors or individuals (e.g. partner, relatives, common criminals, etc.) can exert against them.

Through the work carried out by Karisma, we have been able to identify that there are women who consider it normal for their partners to control their social networks — women are often the ones who voluntarily provide their passwords as “proof of love” — and even through apps where someone’s location can be known at all time. We have also seen how, at times, women have agreed to the idea of creating family accounts, rather than personal, so that there are no “secrets” and their partners can see everything they do. This type of situation allows for the continuous monitoring and control of women, greatly limiting their freedom and independence. And this is no more than the reflection of a society that, in fact, still refuses to recognize women’s rights and gender equity.

How technology can be used to compromise women’s privacy? How does surveillance from different actors affect them? How can governments mainstream gender in their internet programs to include all these concerns as key to the new digital citizens? These are all questions that need to be considered and confronted. There is an urgent need to understand them in order to face them and provide better solutions to empower women and promote substantial changes.