"Maybe, in the end, the belief that VPNs are anything other than rear-entry surveillance capitalism, just runs off the same, male-only delusion circuit that says the stripper is your friend."
Have you noticed? It's all men. Check out the conversation around privacy-themed tech provisions, and you may find yourself asking a thought-provoking question: where are the women?
Okay, so there are obviously some women interested in and working in privacy-themed technology, but the weight of presence is so overwhelmingly male that we have to start asking why. Why is privacy-themed technology a male preserve? More importantly, how will privacy tech provisions serve women if women are not involved in the conversations that define the products' roles? And how can the privacy tech movement ever be taken seriously by the mainstream if it is perceived to serve only men?
Privacy itself does have very strong female interest. Recent topics such as "vaccine passports" and "pregnancy-logging" have evoked loud female demands for privacy, on both sides of the political spectrum. But these protests have existed in separate digital environments from those in which privacy-protecting technology is "focus grouped". And the providers of privacy tech have generally remained enclosed in those male-only bubbles, failing to connect with women and their specific concerns.
"Is a Linux help forum really communicating with the general public, or just a particular type of tech hobbyist who is, statistically, overwhelmingly likely to be a man?"
We have to ask a range of questions in order to discover why privacy-themed technology has established itself as "a market for men". What might those questions be? Well, they could include...Is conversation on the privacy tech scene too selfishly male? Does it care enough about common female concerns such as stalking, online harassment, and worse?
One of the issues with making everyone irreversibly anonymous is that it can give stalkers and predators much more freedom to harass. Are the voices that drive priv-tech policy focusing too singularly on the opacity of the "mask", without any attention to addressing the possible consequences for women?
One of the starkest indications of this problem was a social media discussion about the deployment of police surveillance drones to attend scenes where a woman felt threatened by a male presence but the male party had not implied any threat. The men in the conversation saw the measure as a privacy abuse, whilst the women welcomed it as an essential security safeguard. The field of privacy-themed tech must recognise this chasm in perception, and act upon it, if it wants mainstream acceptance.Do women feel excluded from the privacy tech environment?
Does it feel uneasy for a woman to enter an environment in which nearly all inhabitants are men - a large proportion of whom are rigorously anonymous? Is there too great an overlap between the community discussing anti-surveillance technology and (brace yourself) the manosphere? And is this heightening the sense of exclusion? If women do see that world of proxies, encryption-obsession and anonymisers as an extension of the manosphere, there's a much bigger problem than a tech product's CEO can solve.Do privacy-themed products themselves have a male bias which is offputting for women?
For example, does the average Searx instance render sufficiently good search results in female-biased areas of interest? Or is it only fully efficient in subjects that have a predominantly male audience? Is a Linux help forum really communicating with the general public, or just a particular type of tech hobbyist who is, statistically, overwhelmingly likely to be a man?Is anti-surveillance technology even relatable to women?
It's easy to see how someone with a computer full of porn and a penchant for spamming strippers or joining "extra-marital hookup sites" would relate to something like a VPN. But over 99% of the people following this type of secretive pursuit are men. Women don't have computers full of porn, and (sorry to burst the bubble, Mr Horny Guy, but...) they don't join "extra-marital hookup sites" either. In fact, the male to female ratio found in discussions around privacy-themed technology looks disturbingly similar to the male to female ratio found in the sex trade customer base. Now there's a statistic to conjure with.
"The starting point for all providers of privacy-themed technology is to recognise that they're never going mainstream without women, and consider how they can make their products more valuable to female users."
Whilst women do passionately relate to privacy itself, privacy-themed tech is more relatable to men, because as far as the mainstream is concerned, it doesn't really protect much beyond "computers full of porn".
Linux, for example, is not going to prevent a venue from demanding a vaccine passport. A VPN is not going to destroy the audit-trail to an abortion. In fact, if law enforcement have identified the VPN provider, they'll get a much better audit trail from them than they'd have got from Google.
Ultimately, all these products really do in the mainstream is superficially protect the identity of the "porn addict", the petty P2P knock-off merchant, or the general online nuisance. For one, that is overwhelmingly more likely to be a man than a woman. And for two, it's really the pettiness of the activity that is keeping the user safe from pursuit - not the robustness of the privacy-protection. If the user were a woman in an abusive relationship, Linux's local usage logs would likely make things worse. Which brings us to the next point...Are the "privacy workarounds" used by tech developers safe enough for all women?
For example, one of the leading methods of "increasing user privacy" has been to store a product's usage data locally on the user's own computer or device, rather than "in the cloud". This is hailed as a solution to the current problems of ad-tech companies gathering stupendous banks of private data, but it can create even bigger problems for women in abusive relationships. For someone with a controlling partner, storing all that data on the user's own device could give the abuser incredibly detailed insights into their victim's every action.Are the makers of privacy-themed tech paying any attention at all to targeted stalking?
What are they doing to combat threats like AirTags? Targeted stalking is a phenomenally important area for privacy tools to cover, and yet all the providers seem to do is copy the same raft of superficial offerings that everyone else offers. Most of priv-tech has not mentioned the problem of AirTags on Twitter. I could find no reference to them from Mozilla, Brave, Proton, Vivaldi, DuckDuckGo, Tutanota, or numerous others. In fact, Startpage and EFF were the only privacy-tool providers I looked at whose Twitter feeds surfaced references to AirTags in search. The mentions I found were, however, only links to third-party content, which suggested that general tech blogs were taking the issue more seriously than "privacy companies".Is privacy-themed tech just too untrustworthy for women?
It's often said that women have a sixth sense, and studies show that women are less likely than men to trust a third party when there is no prior record of trust violation. Based on this, it may not be entirely surprising that the providers of privacy-themed technology fail to strike the same chord with women that they do with men.
The claims made by privacy tech providers are often totally unsubstantiated. You have to trust them. There's thus a very real possibility that the female "sixth sense" is creating a divide versus the excessive optimism and trust that so many men exhibit in this environment.
"Priv-tech's silence on mandatory 2FA, hierarchical infiltration and underground gatekeeping has been deafening - probably because most of the brands are pocketing hush money from 2FA providers, hierarchical infiltrators and/or underground gatekeepers."
It can be said that the pitches spouted by privacy tech providers have similarities with some of the romantic pitches men aim at women. Same patronising over-simplifications, and minimisation of information. Same avoidance practises. Same attempts to shepherd attention into a corner. Same contradictions. Same reality-check failures. As such, it may just be one of those areas where women will nearly always fall on the wrong side of the convinced threshold.
Maybe, in the end, the belief that VPNs are anything other than rear-entry surveillance capitalism, just runs off the same, male-only delusion circuit that says the stripper is your friend.
It may even be that the providers of privacy-themed tech know this, and deliberately avoid directing their marketing at women, for fear they will increase their chances of being called out. Particularly in social subdivisions like fourth wave feminism, the instinct comes first, and is assumed to be right until it's categorically proved incorrect. This is an immense danger for priv-tech marketing, because it throws the onus of proof onto the marketer.
Conversely, in the predominantly male subdivisions surrounding priv-tech, there's a morbid fear of getting facts wrong, and that promotes overly cautious speech which helps the product providers weather waves of incredibly bad publicity. The marketer is allowed to throw the onus of proof onto the user, and with much of priv-tech's activity happening at the back end, behind closed doors, the user is unable to access any evidence. The negative publicity then quickly disperses. We saw this perfectly illustrated in the recent debacle over DuckDuckGo's covert data deal with Microsoft. The "callers-out" were such a soft touch that CEO Gabriel Weinberg was able to turn round opinion with one superficial Reddit post and a Twitter bot.
The starting point for all providers of privacy-themed technology is to recognise that they're never going mainstream without women, and consider how they can make their products more valuable to female users. I suspect that the strategy some providers have in mind is to trade on privacy as a launchpad, and once their public profile hits a given threshold, steadily drop the privacy chant and trade on other features, with more universal appeal.
This, however, is not going to play out well if rival businesses do manage to establish more measured privacy regimes, which protect women from anonymous harassers whilst attacking big-picture scourges like forced surveillance capitalism.
"Who is going to be the first priv-tech firm to start speaking and listening to women? At the outset, the conversation could be tough. But in the long term, it could create a market presence to rival that of Google."
It's notable that privacy tech providers have clubbed together to campaign against issues that affect their profitability - like the network effect, and operating system or browser defaults. But we've seen no similar unity on elephant-in-the-room threats to public privacy - like mandatory 2FA, hierarchical infiltration (surveillance capitalism's calculated invasion of schools, universities and places of work) and underground gatekeeping. Indeed, priv-tech's silence on these topics has been deafening - probably because most of the brands are pocketing hush money from 2FA providers, hierarchical infiltrators and/or underground gatekeepers.
But staying on topic, there will soon come a point at which people - women in particular - will start to demand real privacy protections. You can feel those demands taking shape. Major privacy protests loom on the horizon like never before. And some inert browser extension that does basically nothing is not going to solve a thing.
Privacy-themed tech providers may not want women getting involved in their feedback loop. But whether or not that is the case, the fact is clear... Privacy-themed technology will not topple GAMCAM (Google, Apple, Meta, Cloudflare, Amazon, Microsoft) until it starts speaking to and listening to women.
So who is going to be the first priv-tech firm to start speaking and listening to women? At the outset, the conversation could be tough. But in the long term, it could create a market presence to rival that of Google.