Even well-meaning efforts at transparency don’t always work that way for women. Lyft’s car pool service shares the registered names of passengers with everyone else in the car. The first name of an incoming passenger flashes in lights across the dashboard, a feature intended to let riders know they are in the right car. A privacy researcher told me that she once jumped into a Lyft shared ride wearing a sweatshirt with her company’s logo. The next day, she received an email from a male passenger saying, “I found you!” Clearly, he had been able to use her first name and the name of her company to track her down online.
What he may have thought was cute, she thought was creepy. “Do I have any control over this interaction?” the researcher asked. “You want control over the self you’re putting online, just like you want control over your body.” Note to Lyft: Some passengers would be safer if they were anonymous.
With Congress considering whether to draft new privacy regulations, it is important that the specific concerns of women be taken into account now, while the rules are being debated.
.. California’s new privacy law is a case in point: It is a bold piece of legislation, but it falls short for women. In the event of a data breach, for example, consumers in California will have the right to sue if certain kinds of personally identifying information, like Social Security numbers or driver’s license numbers, are compromised. But that may not include material like intimate emails or explicit photos. The current iteration of the law is so murky that it’s not clear whether Jennifer Lawrence, the actress whose nude photos were stolen from her iCloud account in 2014 and made public, would have a case against Apple if a similar incident occurred after the law goes into effect next year.
California’s “right to be forgotten” also doesn’t go as far as Europe’s new privacy legislation, the most sweeping data reform in history. Under the California law, consumers have the right to delete information they personally provide to companies. But if someone else — say, an unhappy ex — posted something about me online, I would not be able to get that taken down. Under Europe’s new law, though, I would at least be able to request such a post be removed.
Although women’s groups have defended privacy as it pertains to abortion, they haven’t yet broadly taken up the issue of digital privacy. Among the few to do so publicly is a grass-roots effort called Catalina’s List, a backer of the California law. “Anything that gives big business an upper hand on individual choices is corrupting the idea of personal choice, freedom and privacy,” a co-founder of Catalina’s List, Bobbi Jo Chavarria, told me.
Weaker federal privacy legislation could eventually override the California law. Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft all contributed money to groups opposing the California law, and last year these companies and Apple spent more than $64 million lobbying Congress on privacy and other issues. Tech companies are pushing for what they want; as the research shows, that’s not necessarily what women want.
So what can Americans do? First, we must elect more women to positions of power who can help write privacy legislation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the top digital policymakers in Europe are women, including Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner, and Elizabeth Denham, Britain’s information commissioner.
The law, of course, will never be as fast as tech companies. They should build products and services that respect privacy by design. To do that, these companies need to hire and consult more women. Women hold just 25 percent of jobs across the tech industry and an even smaller percentage of prime engineering roles.