Data Protection from a Gender Perspective: Why we Should Care About Digital Stalking in Domestic Relationships
By Patricia Andago
I have gone back and forth debating on whether I should tell my story publicly because, as the story title suggests, I like my privacy. However, the reality is that privacy doesn’t exist. Our phones, laptops, governments and partners are all spying on us. I decided to tell my story as a way of championing data privacy best practices, especially for women who are often the main victims of data privacy breaches.
Several months ago, my sister called me frantically saying “Buy a new phone immediately!” I wondered where this strange suggestion was coming from and she said, “Trust me, just buy a new phone…I’ll explain.”
Later, my sister told me my phone was being tracked. She had found out through a mutual friend. Every phone text and Whatsapp message was appearing on my boyfriend’s phone. Let me repeat that again, ALL Whatsapp and phone text messages were being cloned.
It wasn’t the first time I had suspected that my ex was spying on me. Previous conversations had triggered my suspicions. He would mention a conversation that I had with a friend on Whatsapp, almost word for word; conversations that I hadn’t told him about. He would always bring it up like it was a joke, but also, in a twisted, demented way, he was communicating, “I am watching you”.
Women are more prone to privacy breaches
How many nude pictures or sex tapes have been leaked by intimate partners? How many pictures that are shared are of women compared to men? Earlier this year, there was a leak of pictures allegedly of CAS Millicent Omanga and Machakos MCA Betty Nzisa have shown us the perpetrators have no fear when it comes to this issue, because rarely is any action taken against them. It’s taken lightly, sometimes even as a joke, yet the women in question are affected for the rest of their lives. The internet will never forget.
There are several women whose privacy has been invaded and we never get to hear about it. Women’s nude pictures are doing rounds on WhatsApp and Telegram groups of mannerless, horny men or jilted lovers. Not too long ago it happened with Georgina Njenga at the tender age of 21. Every potential employer or partner can access her pictures and may deny her lots of opportunities in the future.
I sat down with 15 women to talk to them about their privacy in relationships and how they handle the situation. Within this group, three women had confirmed they had proof that their previous partners spied on them, and another five suspected either their messages or GPS locations were being tracked. Violation of women’s privacy is a rampant issue that needs to be addressed. The fact that perpetrators tend to move on with life without serious repercussions is sickening.
Life is never the same after being tracked
Being tracked made me become completely paranoid, especially after the relationship ended and I started to feel like my life could be at risk. I was dealing with a narcissistic choleric who is used to having everything go their way, and they have the ICT skills to track me down. So now, I try to do whatever it takes to maintain the little privacy that I have, to avoid being tracked.
I have one number for calls and two different Whatsapp numbers (one for work, and one for personal use). I also have different phones for each of these numbers. A friend of mine got so frustrated while trying to keep up with my phone numbers that he saved my numbers as “Patricia madeni”.
I do not pick up calls from unknown numbers, and I avoid saying anything personal whenever I hear a strange background sound on my phone while on a call. I also discuss my very private matters only in person, preferably within the walls of my home, and not on the phone.
The breach of my privacy has made me feel unsafe in every space I am in.
Because of feeling paranoid and unsafe, some women even shy away from certain jobs or opportunities that put them in the limelight, to avoid being tracked or harassed by lovers or ex-lovers. They also avoid certain social activities that may reveal too much information about them. It’s so unfair to see so many women not pursuing their full potential, or living their best lives, because of fear. We need to make women feel safe again. I want to feel safe again.
Legal and policy adjustments are required
Despite various data protection laws coming into place, privacy breaches in domestic environments are not protected by law. I asked Angela Minayo, the Women Digital Rights Programs Officer at KICTANet who implemented a project on Data Protection from a Gender Perspective about my situation, and this is what she had to say:
“The loophole we identified in our policy brief is that data that is shared in a household or personal capacity with an intimate partner is not subject to protection under the Data Protection Act. There’s more of a commercial approach [in the law] to data protection yet there’s a high risk of data privacy breaches in domestic environments. This is a serious blind spot, said Minayo. KICTANet is a thinktank for ICT policy and regulation in Kenya.
The launch of the office of the data protection commissioner was a good start, but very few people know of its existence. Most Kenyans do not know that they can file a data privacy breach complaint with this office.
“The biggest challenge has been awareness. There’s very little awareness about the data protection act and how it operates,” added Minayo.
There’s a growing need to spread public awareness on the risks of data privacy violations, while tracking the frequency and type of data privacy breaches, and so adjust the legal and policy framework.
In a world where our digital footprints stretch farther than our physical steps, reclaiming our privacy becomes an act of empowerment. Sharing my own story has revealed the stark realities women face – from intimate breaches to the courage of women charting their paths despite the shadows of unwanted surveillance. It’s time to rewrite the script, and to demand the protection and agency every woman deserves.
Patricia Andago | researcher, data journalist and trainer