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Beyond stolen celeb photos: sexism in the surveillance state

On August 31, an unidentified woman survived an apparent murder-suicide near Flint, Michigan, escaping with stab wounds to her neck. Her attacker killed himself.

On August 30, Piara Kang was charged with the second-degree murder of his wife, Baldish Kang, both of Edmonton.

On Sept. 2, Tasha Thomas was shot and killed by her husband outside of a daycare in Tennesee.

On Sept. 3, Maria Fernandes’ funeral was held in Newark. While napping in her car between three jobs she died from the gasoline fumes resulting from a turned-over can in her trunk.

You may have missed these stories because the mainstream press was obsessing over the cell phone photos of some white celebs.

Because some lives are worth more than others.

I find writing about feminism and sexism to be very difficult. When I start down one path, I inevitably end up with the names of the dead, the victims of femicide, the ultimate result of systemic sexism. But most stories about sexism are not about fatal acts. Most are about the daily manifestations of sexism that #yesallwomen have faced.

When writing about sexism, we have a responsibility to link these acts to broader social or economic forces, look outside of sexism itself and see how sexism is being used as a tool to advance a particular political project.

When hundreds of celebrity photos were stolen from iCloud, many feminist writers missed an important opportunity to do just this.

Many writers pushed back against the language used to describe the cyber attack: no, stealing someone’s photos from the cloud isn’t a leak; no, it’s not OK to blame someone whose photos were stolen; yes, this was sexual assault.

There was also a lot written about the logistics of how such a hack could have been pulled off. Many writers argued that people need to be vigilant with their own security and do more to protect themselves online.

But few writers took a step back to combine these narratives. Instead, the debate about whether or not Lawrence has the right to own nude photos of herself dominated most feminist writing. While I appreciate that much of the analyses of the event were written to respond to victim-blaming, it felt like there were too many people responding to the trolls, narrowing the analysis.

Instead, we should have been asking this: in an age where every camera we possess can film us without our knowledge, where all our files can potentially be accessed and where our emails and phone calls are being monitored by various governments, who among us is a target? And how can we protect each other from being a target?

Women celebrities are targets. So are people who pose political threats, peace organizations, anti-poverty groups, non-White folks, anarchists, progressive church groups, Muslims, queer youth, sex workers, outspoken online ranters and bloggers, and so on.

While the culprits in this attack were sexist trolls, we know that the government also has the same power and we know that we’re all being watched.

And somehow, we’re not collectively outraged.

When Glenn Greenwald first reported on the leaked NSA documents, he argued that it was critical for society to know what information was being gathered from them: which conversations, love letters, angry emails etc. are now in the possession of the US government.

When the phone hacking scandal in England rocked Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire, it should have kickstarted a broader discussion on the security of our cell phones.

In Wired’s feature on Edward Snowden, James Bamford reminds readers that the NSA leak exposed the practice of spying “political radicals” and their online porn habits in order to disgrace or undermine them.

At each juncture, coordinated outrage has been minimal. Average people are not demonstrating their anger. Many progressive organizations have failed to mobilize around these issues. And we haven’t done enough to situate questions about our security within systems of oppression like racism or sexism.

The result is that analyses about leaked celebrity photos, while excellent on one level, miss the opportunity to make broader links.

Celebrity photos are just the tip of the iceberg. In an era where our cellphone microphone can be used by someone remotely and where spying is as ubiquitous as the weather, the debate has to move beyond whether someone has the right to take a naked photo of themselves, even if some people try to blame the victim to change the channel on the gendered dynamic of these attacks.

We have to remind ourselves that systems of capitalist exploitation, white supremacy and the supremacy of men are all tied into the every day expressions of sexism. And that, in a world that’s increasingly unsafe for women, illusions of our own security and control must be broken.

Sexism is seeped through every aspect of society, and this includes who is the target of security hacks, whether by government, by basement-dwelling anti-women trolls or by other kids in high school.

But when we forget to situate this sexism in a broader context (i.e. the pervasiveness of the security state, how exposed our own documents are online), we lose the thread. We forget to tie oppression to the broader systems that are working together to monitor, control and force obedience from us all.

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