by Claudia Cahalane

Nataly works for a women’s rights organisation in the Caucasus, on the border of Europe and Asia. The organisation provides services and safe spaces for women in troubled situations. It also campaigns against gender-based violence.

Knowing that the web was becoming a key way for women to find out about community events and issues in the area, the organisation started using social media networks and online outreach more.

But entering the online arena presented a new set of risks: after setting up a series of campaigns on Facebook, the organisation suffered attacks online followed by protests in the street and was accused of being disruptive to family values.

The team got together and worked out how to implement some basic digital security practices and created a new office-wide physical security policy. They also began sharing information with other local women’s rights organisations who were being threatened, which led to the creation of a collaborative digital security strategy.

“We started exchanging information and doing things that are obvious, like changing passwords, thinking about what to put online and what not to, how to deal with comments on Facebook and how to monitor ourselves more,” says Nataly. “At first we wouldn’t monitor social media and now we do that 24 hours a day almost.”

The network also set up a secret Facebook group to document attacks. Tracking incidents together enabled them to find common patterns in the behaviors of their harassers and trace responsibility to a certain set of actors.

As the network continues to support each other and refine their digital security practices, the threats have become more manageable. The organisations can now focus again on the opportunities found in using online platforms to help women be safe and thrive online.

“For some women who are politically active and vocal, there may be intimidation online, for others it may be more serious – like threats to kill her children,” says Maya Indira Ganesh, director of applied research at Tactical Technology Collective, a Berlin-based organisation supporting human rights defenders to use technology in advocacy.
 But while information and technology are critical tools in activism and advocacy, their use also exposes human rights defenders to particular risks.

It is for this reason that the Gender and Tech Pop Up Institute was started by Tactical Technology in 2014.
 Rather than being a physical structure, the Institute is a – mainly virtual – gathering of feminists and human rights defenders globally who are teaching each other protective cyber tools and tactics so they can continue their work.

“There is a huge risk of women’s voices being silenced as they censor themselves online, fearing for their safety,” warns Ganesh. “All over the world, women experience the fear and threat of violence and stalking online as well as offline.”

News reports point towards a new epidemic. In recent weeks (7 March), the online security firm Norton found in a survey of 1,000 Australian women, that online harassment of females is at risk of becoming “an established norm in our digital society”.

Nearly half the respondents had experienced some form of abuse or harassment online. Among women under 30, the figure jumped to 76%. 
In the same week, Honduras saw one of its prominent feminist activist and environmental defenders, Berta Caceres, assassinated. She had known her life was in grave danger.

The more information there is online about someone, the bigger the opportunity for targeted attacks on and offline. In areas where there are already extreme levels of violence against women, being safe with data and privacy is even more paramount.

Tactical Tech has mostly worked in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The pop-up institute has many partners in different cities around the world who all organise their own workshops, initiatives and campaigns.

Gender Tech Institute F3mhck Bangalore

“In 2015 we reached over 5,000 human rights defenders, activists, journalists and others directly through trainings, workshops, talks, and other events, and online resources were accessed 2.5 million times,” says Ganesh.

Anyone can download many of the tools recommended by Tactical Tech, such as Security in a Box, to find out how to use privacy enhancing tools and tactics.

The Institute offers workshops and learning tools that are interactive, thought-provoking, fun, illuminating and empowering in a bid to make internet security easy to grasp and implement.

Gender Tech Institute f3mhack 1200km

But there is much more that needs to be done in this space. If the organisation wins the coveted Womanity Foundation Award – which it is currently a finalist for – it means a potential CHF 300,000 to further its vital work.

The team is linking up with JASS (Just Associates Network), which has substantial reach in Central America, in order to scale up.

JASS works to ensure women leaders around the world are more confident, better organized, louder and safer as they take on some of the most critical human rights issues of today.

The partnership will serve to amplify women’s voices while offering more security. But, while it is almost impossible to avoid leaving information trails behind us when we use digital technologies – in a twist, this is also true of those in power, such as governments and corporations.
 This knowledge can be of great help to those working to expose abuses of power and to uncover injustice.

Tactical Tech inspires digital investigators to reclaim power using their Exposing the Invisible tool, so that women can more genuinely use technology tactically to advance society towards a more equal and peaceful existence.

This work is of paramount importance to the brave women risking everything to make the world fairer for us all.

An edited version on this article was published on TechCrunch on 12 May 2016.