By Chloé Berthélémy

The internet is an incredible tool and has empowered women to speak up, react and organise to face patriarchy and oppression. But the internet is not a neutral place – sexist, racist, homophobic and other violent types of behaviour and content are disproportionately affecting women. This International Women’s Day, we would like to celebrate positive stories and provide practical tips, accessible tools and material for women’s digital safety, security and privacy.

This article covers:

  1. Browsing safely and anonymously
  2. Securing accounts and communications
  3. Gaming safely
  4. Facing and recovering from online harassment
  5. More resources

Women are more likely to be subject to online harassment and violence, massive campaigns of abuse and intimidation, or exploitation and manipulation of private data. An Amnesty International report found that women of colour, women with disabilities, lesbian, bisexual, trans women and women at the intersection of forms of oppression are even more targeted. Factors are manifold: little accountability of malicious attackers leading to a feeling of impunity, or the lack of knowledge of companies and developers about violence and abuse on their infrastructures. Victims are left with little support for the violence they’ve encountered. This leads women to self-censor, restrict their freedom of expression and their meaningful participation online.

Browsing safely and anonymously

When browsing the web, personal data and internet activity are being collected and recorded. Websites collect data such as demographics, intimate interests and tastes, personal habits and hobbies. This enormous amount of personal data includes sensitive information like credit card data, physical location, sexual preferences, religion, health and others. This information is extremely valuable to companies, governments and malicious actors alike and can be exploited and facilitate targeted attacks on women. One part of the solution is to use encryption. Using encryption is not as hard as it seems: Start with HTTPS Everywhere, a browser add-on that tells websites you visit to use encryption when available (a browser add-on is a small programme that customises your browser’s behaviour).

The infamous cookies are small pieces of data stored by websites on your devices and originally designed to remember your previous choices on a website such as form fields, shopping card items and language choice. Today, they are often used by third parties to assign you a unique identifying number which helps advertisement companies to follow you around across the web. While you probably want to allow some of the useful cookies on shopping portals and other websites, it’s definitely a good idea to block all third party cookies. This can be done directly in your browser settings.

Other forms of snooping include website trackers which are mostly used by advertisement companies. Trackers are little snippets of computer code often invisibly embedded in advertisement on all kinds of websites including your favourite newspaper, shopping site and social network. Trackers are often served by a third-party such as Google or Facebook rather than by the original owner of a website. You know those “Like” buttons you find all over the web? That’s actually a tracker telling Facebook which sites you’ve visited and which newspaper articles you’ve read. Luckily, two simple browser add-ons will help you block undesired trackers: Install Privacy Badger and Ublock Origin and you’re good to go.

Alternatively, in order to increase anonymity, you can use the Tor network or a Virtual Private Network. Those tools are particularly tailored and recommended for politically active women, human rights defenders or even women fearing for their safety. More information can be found here and here.

For women especially, the collection of data for commercial purposes can be very intrusive. Many doubts have been cast on menstruapps, which are very popular health-related mobile applications helping women to monitor their menstrual cycles. Not only do these apps know about the time period, but also invite users to share very intimate details about their periods like symptoms or sexual drive. Menstruation, pregnancy, online dating and many more aspects of women’s lives are turned into marketing targets. Another advice: never blindly trust mobile apps.

Lastly, it is important to note that websites often request too much information about users in order for us to be allowed to use of the service. More than just an email address and a password, websites may require a name, a location, and other unnecessary details. A good rule to follow is to only give personal information that is absolutely necessary – an email address to receive a registration confirmation or to retrieve a password for example. The rest is up to one’s imagination and creativity: fake address, fake birth date, etc. Faking means lowering the risk of having personal information possibly compromised.

Securing accounts and communications

Staying safe online also means protecting your communications and accounts against identity theft and hacking. When it comes to securing personal accounts, strong passwords are key. Here are the latest rules to create super strong passwords. Don’t use the same password across websites and services, and if you have more passwords than you can remember, use a password manager that keeps them all in one secure place for you. Another good practice to reduce the risk of hacking is to activate two-factors authentication when it is available: after entering a password, you will receive a second code on a different device or service.

As for browsing, encryption is good practice for communication, too, in order to avoid data mining by marketers and surveillance agencies. Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) for emails and messaging apps like Signal offer end-to-end encryption and are good starting points.

Intimate communications such as explicit pictures are particularly vulnerable content that can be used for all kinds of harassment practices such as “doxxing” (blackmail) or “revenge porn”. Specific advice on how to do sexting safely can be found here.

Gaming safely

When it comes to gaming, and especially multiplayer games, the experience for women can be less than enjoyable. In order to stay safe from harassment or sexism, there are a couple of things that you can put in place: You can make use of games’ reporting systems, mute an individual player in the chat function, don’t use your real name but instead register with a pseudonym that does not hint to your gender, don’t use a gamertag that you already use in other social media profiles, don’t use a real photo of yourself for your profile, and don’t give away any personal information in chats, such as your phone number or location.

Facing and recovering from online harassment

Women – and in particular women of colour, women with disabilities and lesbian, bisexual or trans women – represent the majority of harassment and violence targets. As a consequence, many women’s experience on social media leads them to self-censor what they post, and sometimes even delete their account. If you’re experiencing harassment on social media platforms such as Twitter, there are possibilities to cope with the situation and fight back. For example, victims can ask platforms to delete, suspend or send a warning to harassing accounts. HeartMob is a supportive tool where people can document the harassment they are experiencing on social media and request the support they need from an online community.

For women who are human rights defenders or political activists, taking action on this issue may include developing fully-fledged security and protection strategies for human rights defenders. Threats, incitement to rape or any form of violence is illegal and can be notified to law-enforcement authorities. Victims-support NGOs and services can assist you.

More resources

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