The physical and digital worlds are increasingly intertwined when it comes to safety. Prejudices that manifest online can lead to physical harm, and LGBTQI+ people are increasingly prone to security threats. It is therefore necessary for LGBTQI+ citizens in Commonwealth countries with restrictive legislations to be aware of the intersection of their human rights and technology. This article aims to act as a guide with practical means for LGBTQI+ individuals to take their rights to privacy and security into their own hands.
The Sexual Offences Act, which came into force on 27 July 1967, decriminalised private sexual activity between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales. Scotland followed in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982. Since then, more than 30 countries have decriminalised homosexuality across the Commonwealth.
However, in many other Commonwealth countries, there are still many barriers preventing LGBTQIA+ people from enjoying full equality. From the ban on same-sex marriage to hate crimes, abuse, harassment, jail and even the death penalty, the list of perils threatening LGBTQIA+ people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics is lengthy.
While activists and advocates are lobbying intensively for the reform of discriminatory laws, it may take years or even decades for their efforts to come to fruition. In the meantime, LGBTQIA+ people run the risk of being tracked down, persecuted and subjected to violence, especially in the wake of the pandemic when most activities have shifted to the virtual space. Thus, it becomes incumbent on LGBTQIA+ people to ensure their own safety and security in both the physical and digital worlds.
Here are a few safety measures for you, as an LGBTQIA+ individual, to protect yourself online and offline, particularly to avoid accidental disclosures when you need to keep your identity secret to avoid persecution.
1. Delayed posts
You are at the beach, soaking in the sun and sipping on a fancy cocktail. But are you even on vacation if you do not post a picture of it on social media? And if you do, you might as well be slapping a huge sign on your front door that says “Out of Town!” That house tour video you posted when you first moved in is now a map to enter your home in your absence, especially if you have been placed under surveillance. Spies who have been assigned to keep an eye on your whereabouts could use this opportunity to break in and collect evidence of your lifestyle and contacts. Similarly, your personal safety can be compromised if you reveal information such as your date of birth. Then again, why else did you order that elaborate backdrop, balloons with your age number and extravagant cake for your birthday party if you cannot post photos of them?
Tip: Save the holiday pictures and share them after you are back home. Post the birthday celebration photos a few days after the actual party so that your date of birth cannot be determined. This will make it more difficult to keep tabs on you.
2. Customised privacy settings
A notification of a new friend or follower is generally exciting – and tempts you to grow your number of connections on social media. However, some ‘friends’ can be problematic by introducing spam into your timeline. Some may even have criminal intentions.
Tip: When accepting friends, choose people whom you know personally. Instead of deferring to default settings, adjust your privacy settings so that you can block spammers and harassers. You can also opt to limit the information that is available to the public from your account.
3. Cautious online dating
A couple of weeks ago, you posted about how sad and lonely you feel. Then, a few days ago, you met this new person online. You two are around the same age, like the same sports team and enjoy the same films – it seems like the starts have finally aligned for you! Over a seemingly short period of time, you have grown close and you just sent them provocative pictures and videos of you. You have suggested meeting in person multiple times, but they keep stalling for various reasons. While you may tend to ignore the red flags at first, these are blatant attempts at catfishing to collect evidence that may be used to track you down. Seductive content may be used to blackmail you, or leaked to damage your reputation.
Tip: Stop communicating with anyone who attempts to pressure you into providing them with your personal information. Do not share pictures or videos of yourself that gives someone any sort of hold over you. Be wary if they seem vague in their communication about your ‘shared’ interests that you posted about, or if they dodge questions or make excuses for not meeting or speaking on the telephone. Be careful when sharing your feelings of vulnerability online as many human traffickers prey on fragile LGBTQIA+ individuals who are isolated from their communities due to ostracism. Educate yourself about digital security, online dating and human trafficking.
4. Prudent career moves
Are you job hunting? Then you probably assume that posting your full resume on certain job platforms will maximise your chances to secure employment. Likewise, you may presume that listing your workplace or announcing your new job will boost your networking options. However, educational history and work information can reveal significant details about your whereabouts and commute, thus exposing you to risks of persecution from those who are on the lookout for an opportunity to corner you. They can also create another account to impersonate you and post incendiary comments or offensive pictures, leading to embarrassment or even legal problems for you.
Tip: Do not post your detailed resume on social networks. Email the document to reliable recipients instead. Omit personal details such as addresses and phone numbers in your public profile. If you are misrepresented online, usually you only need to request the platform to take down the fake profile. However, it is challenging and, at times, impossible to remove information from the digital space. In some instances, your information may even be captured via screenshot and used on blogs or news sites. More often than not, it might be difficult for you to recover from the damage caused to your intellectual property and reputation.
5. Secure data protection
“I accept.” Raise your hand if you have merely scrolled through the text and checked the box. You are not entirely to blame though. Online platforms often include complex terminology to deter users from delving into the intricacies of the implications of the terms and conditions. One important element of such agreements is the use of your personal data. Social networking sites sometimes only inform you that there was a custom interaction with a given app or website, leaving you in the dark as to how, when and where this interaction happened, how your consent was obtained and how your data is being used for advertising by brands and third parties. Data brokers buy your personal data from companies that you do business with, collect data such as web browsing histories from a range of sources, combine it with other information about you, such as magazine subscriptions or purchasing histories, and sell their insights to anyone that wants to know more about you – from authoritarian governmental authorities to religious fundamentalists who are against LGBTQIA+ rights.
Tip: In most Commonwealth countries, you have the right to ask for a copy of your personal data as well as other accompanying information about this data, such as where it originated from, what is being done with it and who it has been shared with. You can also go through Privacy International’s simple guide with step-by-step instructions on Data Subject Access Requests. This can be followed by a deletion request to ensure that the company does not keep any of your data if you do not want them to.
6. Safe protests
Are you planning or attending a protest? Then you will probably use social media to organise marches, communicate with protestors, and upload photos and videos of protest. This may expose you and your fellow protestors to certain risks, especially if you are protesting in favour of LGBTQIA+ rights in conservative countries.
Tip: Wear face coverings such as masks or bandanas to mask your identity. Ensure that the faces of other individuals are not recognisable before you post them online and do not tag them, particularly if they do not consent to their image being used. Avoid sharing your location and ensure that distinctive backgrounds such monuments or landmarks are not visible to prevent geolocation trails. Given the low security of cellular networks, consider the use of secure channels such as end-to-end encrypted messaging apps to share sensitive information. However, if you use cloud backup for any of your messaging apps, the content could still be accessed using cloud extraction tools. For detailed information about protecting yourself during protests, check out the ‘Free to Protest’ resources developed by Privacy International.
Hopefully, someday, all Commonwealth countries will do away with the terrible remnants of colonial laws that discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people. Unfortunately, the timeline for that liberation remains uncertain. Until then, it might be better for you to safeguard your identity and information, particularly if you need to remain closeted. Disclaimer
The digital space is diverse, and its practices evolve constantly. You will most likely never be able to block everything and avoid any personal data leak. This guide should nonetheless help you to reduce the risks that you might be unknowingly taking on social media. Please be aware that the author has not carried out an in-depth assessment of the security and privacy implications of the measures, products or services recommended in this guide. You are strongly encouraged to enquire into their suitability for your own purposes and devices, and to review each product's policies and features.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As legal lead of the #Reform53 campaign, Nandini Tanya Lallmon adopts a decolonial perspective on human rights across the Commonwealth. She invokes international law to protect LGBTQIA+ people from religion-based violence as United Nations Religion Fellow at OutRight Action International. Appointed as African Youth Charter Hustler for Mauritius by the African Union Office of the Youth Envoy, she ensures that youth voices are included in planning and decision-making processes. She leverages the power of traditional and social media to create learning, dialogue and development spaces that are respectful, inclusive and transformative.
She is reachable on Twitter on @Nandini_Tanya and Instagram on @nandini_tanya.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society.