Violet Blue is a journalist who sniffs out interesting stories about technology, controversy, and identity. Her work has been especially important in recent years as it becomes clear how often women are harassed online and at risk of having their data exploited.
For her new book, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy (No Starch Press), Blue worked with attorneys, psychologists, and tech employees to put together a practical guide to online privacy that doesn’t require a huge amount of background knowledge. Though it’s marketed toward girls and discusses the role gender plays in online harassment and exploitation, Blue notes in the first chapter that the book is for women “of all shades on the gender identity spectrum” and that LGBTQ people are routinely left out of the privacy conversation.
The book is a straight-forward how-to for protecting your privacy and undermining the social media settings that want you to share potentially intimate details with the world. Even as someone who grew up with the Internet, there was plenty of basic info in The Smart Girl’s Guide that I didn’t know. I followed some of Blue’s steps and was surprised to find my home address could be found in about 30 seconds of Internet searching (luckily, it was a home I moved out of a few years ago). With that in mind, I found the book alarmingly handy. After taking action on many of Blue’s simple recommendations, I feel a bit more in control of what personal info about me can be found in just a few keystrokes. I talked with Blue about the changing idea of digital privacy and how diversifying the tech industry is crucial to creating a safer Internet for all.
A chart from the Pew Center shows the types on online harassment people face.
You start out your book by describing Internet privacy as a self-defense move, like a self-defense class that everyone should take in order to protect themselves. Can you tell me more about framing online privacy in terms of self-defense?
It’s the same sort of protection that you would take when you go outside. People just don’t think of going on the Internet in the same way. Would you trust a man on the street? Would you trust a person who has a clipboard and is asking you for your phone number and address to sign you up for some interesting offers? You wouldn’t say yes to anything like that because it’s a privacy risk. You’d think, “Who is this person?” But on the Internet, we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security—a lot having to do with social networking sites—that giving up our privacy, identity, and information is a necessary exchange in order to enjoy these services. And that’s a false question, because a lot of people aren’t aware of what they’re getting into. But it’s time that we think about it in the same terms. Would you trust a man on the street with a photograph of you? Would you trust a strange company with that?
These days, there is such a low expectation of privacy online. We assume that Google, Facebook, and every other company is gathering our data and mining it. I think it’s interesting in this book how you reframe Internet privacy from something that’s an impossible ideal to something that is possible and that we should defend.
it’s interesting that you mention that because at the beginning of this month, a new report came out that shattered the myths around the way marketers are misrepresenting American consumers and opening them up to exploitation. The study is called “The Trade-Off Fallacy.” What’s interesting about the study is that it blows open the idea that people are okay with trading privacy for services. The majority of Americans have been giving up their data for two reasons. One: they’re not aware they can do anything else, they think they don’t have a choice. And two, they’re resigned to it. They think their data is already out there and they feel helpless about it. Marketers and social networks have been putting forth the philosophy that this is something that people willingly do or want to do in order to get better recommendations or “better ads.” No, people don’t want to be doing this. Now that they’re aware of what’s happening, they’re pretty upset about it. This is not something that they would have consented to had they known.
That’s a good point. I think part of that is how it often feels safer online than it is. Unless you’re being targeted by people who specifically want to hurt you—whether they’re stalkers, trolls, or political groups—putting yourself out there online can feel safe. Websites present a veneer of “we’re protecting you, don’t worry about it, don’t even look at those privacy settings.” How do you talk to people who care about their privacy but feel resigned to having their data taken by companies?
It’s funny, because this is an issue that I wish I didn’t have to do anything about. I wish that companies would protect my privacy if I used their services, but instead it falls on me as the consumer to be wary of companies and protect myself in many ways. There’s a quote I like from technologist Julia Angwin, who said, “If you’re getting something for free, you’re paying for it in some way.”
Right. Just that realization is a huge consciousness shift for some people. Companies don’t get where they are by being nice. But I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing thing—I don’t think you have to know everything about Internet privacy. One reason I wanted to write this book is because all the information I could find about Internet privacy and protecting yourself was extremely technical and required a lot of acumen to understand. You have to know tech jargon. The goal of the book is to make this as simple and easy as possible so people don’t have to become experts. It’s easy to go down rabbit holes and get overwhelmed and feel like there’s nothing you can do about this.
It feels to me like there’s a pretty snobby knowledge-gap here, where people who have the knowledge to protect peoples’ privacy online and know all about it often say, like, “Only a dumb person would let themselves get hacked. Only a dumb person wouldn’t know to change their privacy settings.” I feel like that attitude persists and really limits helping regular people who are not in tech industries to protect their privacy online.
I agree and it’s absolutely true, it’s absolutely there. You see it in comments, that “you were asking for it” attitude. It drives me nuts. The haves and have-nots of knowledge—that’s exactly the attitude I wanted to challenge with this book, to break through all that snobbery. I wanted to put this in really simple language and step-by-step directions that anyone can do. It’s not rocket science, taking care of your privacy online, but breaking through that knowledge gap is challenging.
An important point you make in the book is that Internet privacy is a gendered issue.
Oh, very much.
Women and genderqueer people are more likely to be harassed online—a startling percentage of young women have dealt with online stalking and harassment. And you point out in the book that people who design technology are overwhelmingly male and often don’t take into account that these issues will come up for half the people that use the technology. Can you speak to that and how gender has shaped the lack of privacy in our online technology?
I think the biggest thing that’s missing in today’s privacy conversation is the role of gender. The fact is that straight men perceive privacy completely differently from everyone else and t hey have overwhelmingly been the people who shape, develop, and implement the technologies that we use. This comes not out of any malice, but out of a lack of understanding that a huge percentage of the people who use their services are going to be targeted. Understanding target status really changes the way anyone uses a system. For example, I’m an investigative reporter and a while ago, I broke the story about Snapchat being hacked. I was sitting on an airplane and I was telling a man and woman behind me about what got out there. She asked, “What got out there?” And I said, phone numbers, user names, and a couple other pieces of information. The man said, “Phone numbers, big deal, who cares?” But she really cared. And that was, in a nutshell, an example of the different ways we understand privacy. She knew in an instant all the different ways she could be stalked, threatened, attacked—an ex could use that information in a campaign to attack her—whereas the male of the couple was like, “Whatever. What are they going to do, call me?” That’s not to say that men are never stalked or harassed or threatened online. They definitely are. But in the majority of cases, the first thing they think about their information will not be, “How can this be exploited for evil? How can this be used against me?” Unfortunately, the way society has assigned target status is that, as women, we have to think about these things in order to stay safe.
So if there was better gender diversity in the tech industry, we might see a shift in the way these products and services are designed, to take into account gender-based harassment.
Yes, and I think we see that in the way companies are grappling with that now. Look at the struggle Twitter is having, as an established company that has all its rules and systems in place. They’re getting hit with these situations of targeting and stalking on a really huge scale. They have to take this system that was implemented one way and now try to shape it to protect people. They’re having a huge struggle with that, because the system wasn’t built with that in mind. I think if the system was built with [privacy and abuse] in mind, we would see a difference.
Do you miss the early days of the Internet, when it was more possible to be anonymous?
I never really thought it was anonymous to be online. When you go to the DMV and you give them all your information, there are some people working at the DMV who are creeps. It’s like that in every system. As strong and safe as a an online banking service could be, there’s always going to be a person behind that. I’ve never felt that it would be safe to give all my information to Facebook. So I’ve always proceeded through the Internet as I have through life: very cautiously. The only thing I miss about the early days of the Internet is the creativity and the freedom that we felt we had. People are becoming less and less comfortable with free expression online because they’re worried about how companies may be watching them. There are less and less places online where you can create art or create silly videos and not worry about what might happen to them later.
Clearly people should go and buy your book to get all the information to protect their security, but if someone’s reading this right now, what would you recommend they do to protect their privacy within the next 15 minutes?
Using quotes, Google your name and be sure to check the images tab. Google your phone number, Google your home address, Google your social security number. Get a piece of tape or a Post-It note and stick it over your webcam—software to hack webcams is really cheap online and when someone uses that, they can turn on your camera and record you without the little light even going on. Put a password lock on your phone, laptop, and tablet because if it got stolen and wasn’t locked, they could be able to get into your accounts. Log out of Google, log out of Facebook, log out of LinkedIn and view your accounts as an outsider. See what you can see, then log back in and adjust your privacy settings accordingly.
Related Listening: Our Podcast "The Future of Privacy" Explores Issues of Internet Privacy.