If you use Snapchat, you probably noticed a new feature the app recently rolled out: Snap Map, which allows your contacts to see where you are when you send a Snap. However, the feature had barely been live for a moment when people started to raise concerns about the potential safety issues and implications of sharing location data unwittingly. Though much of the discussion thus far has centered around its potential dangers for younger users, there's also concern that the feature could be harmful for women, who could be made vulnerable to stalkers or abusers by inadvertently giving away their location. This concern is particularly relevant because so many of Snapchat's users are women (a whopping 70 percent of all Snapchat users are female, according to a 2013 comment by CEO Evan Spiegel).
When reached for comment, Snapchat explained that “the safety of our community is very important to us," and noted that "with Snap Map, location-sharing is off by default for all users and is completely optional. Snapchatters can choose exactly who they want to share their location with, if at all, and can change that setting at any time." And indeed, a lot of the outcry over Snap Map appears to stem from the incorrect rumor that the Snap Map option was the default, when in reality turning on Snap Map is a choice made by users.
But even with that issue cleared up, the Snap Map discussion points to a much larger question: why do so many tech products seem to ignore the unique safety threats that women experience online?
Why Are Women Often Left Vulnerable By Tech?
To fully understand the concern over Snap Maps and similar technology, we first need to talk about the unique risks that women experience online. Online, as in the real world, women are more likely to be targets of threats and harassment, individually or as part of larger incidents like GamerGate, than their male counterparts — a 2016 study found that 76 percent of women under 30 had been subject to online harassment.
This has led some women to be wary of apps and other tech products that could make it easier for others to find out their location, or for them to accidentally reveal their own location — products that seem to be coming out with some frequency in recent years. A number of dating apps have been found to be open to exploitation for geo-data, as have various aspects of the Apple iOS. And Google Maps' decision to add a feature that allows for location-sharing, for instance, was met with similar concerns to those around Snap Map earlier this year.
Why do the same privacy issues seem to turn up again and again? One theory is that tech teams simply don't consider the concerns of female safety when developing new technology, because many developers are male. "The privacy settings of social media sites and apps," wrote Violet Blue in her guide to privacy for girls online, "have a baseline of normal that doesn't consider that half of their users are being targeted."
"Forget about a map of where you are in real-time; for many women and underrepresented folks, even a profile picture can be a 'danger.'"
Allison Esposito, CEO and founder of the women in tech community Tech Ladies, made a similar point: when developing a product, it can be difficult to understand dangers outside of your own experiences. "I think product teams at tech companies are thinking of utility first, and safety second," she told Bustle. "They don't necessarily think about women or other folks who would be targeted, and as many of these teams are made up of men, that complicates things as well. We are all blind to certain things we don't experience.
"For example, a few months ago I noticed a large number of Asian women who apply to join Tech Ladies weren't using real photographs of themselves in their profile pictures. I'm a white woman, I've experienced targeted sexual harassment, so I thought it might have something to do with being harassed online, but wasn't certain. I asked, and learned that the volume of the sexual harassment many Asian women receive online is insanely high, and it's often combined with racist messages. This has led many Asian women just say 'f*ck it' and use a picture of something else to minimize the harassment they receive. So forget about a map of where you are in real-time; for many women and underrepresented folks, even a profile picture can be a 'danger.'"
However, the issue isn't just that products may not take women's safety concerns into account — some women also may feel social pressure to share on social media, even if doing so makes them feel unsafe. A 2013 study of teens on Facebook published in the Journal of Communication Enquiry found that "stereotypical kinds of self-exposure by girls are marks of social success and popularity," with girls facing broader social worries about the risks of being aloof, and facing a bigger "social cost" when they choose not to share. This might be why statistics show that women are greater social media users than men — for example, 83 percent of all women who are online use Facebook, while only 79 percent of men do; similarly, 38 percent of women online use Instagram, while only 26 percent of men have accounts.
There is a clear demand for safer technology; women are openly requesting better protections on online platforms like Twitter, from problems like misogynistic abuse from other users or the practice of "doxxing," in which personal data is revealed publicly. Too often, though, conversations about safety for women in particular only really erupt after a colossal breach, like Gamergate, or the onslaught of doxxing and social media abuse of Leslie Jones, or data leaks. Seeing tremendous shortfall in company responses, let alone the law, some women have established their own safety groups, like the organization Crash Override for people experiencing harassment.
Geo-Data Can Be Harnessed As A Tool Of Abuse
And while many people have generalized fears about having their personal data leaked, for women, these kinds of technologies can be harnessed to manipulate and control — particularly in the context of intimate partner violence.
As tech becomes a greater and greater part of our lives, the line between "real world" and "online" existence becomes blurred — and that goes for abuse, as well. "[R]esearch has tended to treat online abuse as separate from ‘real-world’ experiences," write Ruth Lewis and her co-authors in a study called "Online Abuse of Feminists as An Emerging Form Of Violence Against Women And Girls", published this year. But that separation doesn't accurately reflect women's lives. Viewing internet abuse as less serious than "real" abuse, and not talking about specific gender-based technological abuse, is missing a huge part of the point, as is looking at the dangers of geo-data and privacy breaches without acknowledging the gendered nature of the risks.
These concerns about women, technology, and intimate partner abuse are far from theoretical: a study published in the journal Violence Against Women in 2017 found that "technology—including phones, tablets, computers, and social networking websites—is commonly used in intimate partner stalking. Technology was used to create a sense of the perpetrator’s omnipresence, and to isolate, punish, and humiliate domestic violence victims. Perpetrators also threatened to share sexualized content online to humiliate victims." A Safety Net survey also found that 97 percent of abused women in survivor programs reported their abuse had been partially based in technology. Tech, used licitly or illicitly, could become a weapon in the hands of an abusive partner.
Privacy Online Is More Complex Than It Seems
Which brings us back to apps like Snap Map.
Though Snap Map may be an opt-in service, users have also discovered that location data isn't necessarily just shown when a Snap is sent: if the sharing option is on, it may be distributed to all contacts every time the app is activated, an aspect that some believe isn't comprehensively explained in the walk-through. Snapchat has promised that it deletes all geo-locating data after a small amount of time — but unwittingly giving out geo-data can still be a risk for women, especially those who aren't totally clear on how the app operates.
Different tech experts have different takes on Snap Map. Esposito told Bustle, "I don't necessarily think Snap Map is a bad or flawed product...Snap's feature is opt-in, so like any other new technology, people will have to weigh the risks and rewards of turning it on."
However, she also observed that "women are uniquely vulnerable to stalking and domestic violence, so women are going to need to have their eyes open on every toggle they hit and every button they press," and that "Snap should consider working in some language around safety and take steps in the UI an copy to make it super, super clear what is being turned on and when."
Dr. Ann Cavoukian, Executive Director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University, told Bustle "I think [Snap Map] is a privacy threat and a security threat...The confusion appears to be that some people might think that they’re posting their location only on stories, as opposed to every time they use the app. There is not enough clarity associated with explaining when and how often your geolocation is accessible."
Dr. Cavoukian believes the fact that Snap Map offers less privacy than standard Snapchat may confuse users: "The expectation is that there’s going to be very strong privacy and security [in every part of the app], so that should extend to Snap Map. That’s the problem: you’re using a particular system which is highly-privacy protected, and you have that expectation for other things that they offer."
What About Tech Specifically Designed To Keep Women Safe?
Though much discussion focuses on apps that don't seem to take women's safety into account, there's now also a market for apps and other tech that can be used in ways that increase women's safety and help them protect themselves from stalking and abuse— or at least, that's the idea. However, that doesn't mean it always pans out that way.
A fascinating (and rather terrifying) study by the Gendering Surveillance team at the Internet Democracy Project in February 2017 found that many apps designed or marketed to increase "safety," particularly for women, actually have the potential to endanger it. Many they examined were based around the idea of broadcasting location data quickly to others, like pre-determined contacts or emergency services, while others employed strategies like "geofencing" ("the user, or the ‘emergency contact’, selects an area on the map within which the user is expected to be," explained Gendering Surveillance, and "the user’s stepping outside of this area triggers an alert to the emergency contact"), or "heatmaps", where crowdsourced data reveals whether an area is suddenly unsafe because of a terrorist attack or some other incident.
What Can We Do?
There seem to be a few ways to push back against tech that doesn't prioritize women's safety. One is to focus on welcoming some more highly-qualified women into the heavily male tech space; another is to recommend that apps and developers focus-group their stuff specifically among young girls, women, educators and parents. "I start with the companies themselves," Dr Cavoukian said. "I think ultimately the responsibility lies with them, especially when you’re offering a vehicle such as Snapchat, which is known for its privacy protective measures. That’s what I find a little disturbing: they should know that most people expect total security when they use it, and that should automatically extend to other offerings." We can also educate each other about how to use apps more safely; Esposito told Bustle that "I think the best we can do for each other is have a dialogue about how these features work and share with each other some safety tips."
There are, of course, ways to use technology to make women safer — and the UN's campaign to end violence against women has identified many of them, from data-gathering about where violence against women happens to collecting evidence for prosecution and providing support networks and information for girls who feel unsafe. Tech has great power and potential, and despite these safety issues, there is hope for a future where tech is used to help women protect themselves, not make it more difficult.