This article was written in collaboration with Raseef22 and published first on Raseef22.com.

Consider your mobile phone’s photo gallery for a minute. Scrolling through, you may find yourself looking at pictures and videos you’ve sent to a cute crush you met on a dating app, or to a recent ex. Some of these individuals could betray your trust – especially if you are a woman or part of the LGBTIQ community.

The phenomena of sextortion, cyber harassment, and doxxing have become almost daily realities for women and girls, especially, in Lebanon, Palestine, the Gulf countries, and Morocco.

Alarming numbers show the patriarchy thrives online

In Lebanon, sextortion–the non-consensual sharing of photos and videos online–has become such a problem that the Internal Security Forces (ISF) has gone to great lengths to continuously warn netizens to avoid sharing “inappropriate pictures” with anybody. According to a recent report published by digital rights organization SMEX mapping online privacy threats of women and LGBTIQ in Lebanon, government agencies report between five to six official complaints per week.

In Gaza, the West Bank, and the Occupied Territories, one third of Palestinian women are subjected to sexual violence and harassment online. According to a study published by the Arab Center for the Development of Social Media (7amleh) and the Swedish Kvinna til Kvinna Foundation, the study found that these instances of online sexual harassment have led women and girls to compromise on their free speech online.

Prevention campaigns harm people’s free expression online

The challenges and constraints of patriarchal societies, which usually don’t afford women basic legal protections have a tendency to extend into the cyberspace realm. In response, many of the campaigns geared towards mitigating the problem of sexual harassment and violence online are designed within a patriarchal framework that diverts attention away from harassers and abusers and instead places the onus of responsibility on victims.

One example is Lebanon’s Alfa Telecom campaign in October 2018 telling Lebanese netizens that #NotEverythingIsForSharing. This prevention campaign, done in coordination with Dubai-based advertising agency DDB Dubai, simulated phone screens on apartment windows – at night, these screens came to life, showcasing different scenes that, according to Alfa, “were best kept private.”

The aim of campaigns like this is to police people’s online sharing behavior, which leads to more self-censorship. More often than not, this is particularly applicable to women and girls, who already face more barriers to access while dealing with societal pressures that further curb their free speech.

Self censorship online is already common among Arab women.  7amleh’s study found that only 39.8% of Palestinian women they surveyed feel safe with sharing personal information and photos on social media as opposed to 42.9% of them who self-censor online. And while instances of sextortion and cyber harassment also target men, women and girls still remain the most vulnerable target.

The perpetuated exclusion of women and girls from the digital public sphere risks maintaining a cyberspace dominated by patriarchal and sexist discourses where sexual violence and harassment is ignored and trivialized.  

Take back control, one small step at a time

The answer here is not to submit to self-censorship or fear, but to take back the internet. The promise of a democratic, feminist, equal Internet of Things is not far-fetched once we envigorate women and girls with the possibility to manage their privacy online.

As part of a long-running campaign intervention in Beirut launching on Valentine’s Day, SMEX is telling women #MeshAyb. Most importantly, #MeshAyb to celebrate your body and sexuality online. As the barriers between technology and reality get further blurred and millennials and younger generations turn toward the Internet for connection, love, or casual sex, we must anticipate these needs and provide recommendations.

The following basic recommendations help mitigate instances of sexual harassment and violence online, but let’s be clear: they are not foolproof.

Set up a screen lock

Lock your phone with a numeric PIN, a pattern, or a password. Go to “Settings” and click on “Screen lock” under “Security”. Avoid using something as obvious as a birthday and never give out your password unless you trust the person with your messages and pictures.

Minimize the amount of data an app–especially a dating app–can collect on you

Check the apps’ permissions you may have casually accepted. A dating app wants access to your microphone? No. Another app meant to regulate your period wants to access your contact list? No, thanks. Go on your phone’s applications manager and click on any app to learn more about the permissions you allowed.

Disable automatic sync-ing to your cloud or drive on all your devices

The Cloud, this mysterious technology that allows you to store your data “out there” while freeing up space on your hard drive isn’t so mysterious when you break it down. Cloud computing basically boils down to the use of a network of computers to store and process information. This makes the cloud a real, physical space where everything from your sex tapes, to your nudes, your messages, or even your friends’ contact information are stored and easily accessible. Disabling automatic sync-ing to a cloud or drive will help you regain basic control of your data without the fear of leaks.

End-to-end encrypted messaging apps offer a layer of protection, use them

End-to-end encryption used by apps like Whatsapp and Signal allows only the reader and the sender to read the content of their messages. This is especially important if you’re worried about hackers stealing your sensitive pictures. It also helps to know that neither the government nor the app developers will be able to read your messages. However, although WhatsApp may be a convenient choice to use (everyone is already on it anyway!), it isn’t the most secure one. When you receive a photo or video through WhatsApp, it is automatically saved in your gallery but you can disable this feature. Signal, a free app trusted by cybersecurity experts, is the best choice going forward. It provides a disappearing message feature, allowing messages to self-destruct after a set period of time.

No matter your motivation behind applying these recommendations, these are a basic starting point for anyone to regain control of their privacy.

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