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Editor’s note: This essay contains discussion of predatory and abusive behaviours.

There are lots of things I can’t remember.

Here are some things I do remember: how important he made me feel, how wise for an undergraduate. I recall how years later I felt ashamed for liking the attention of an older, well-respected academic. Ashamed for wanting what I had always been told to want, and how it must have been my fault that it went too far. I remember the triangle earrings I wore the night he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I loved those earrings. I haven’t worn them since.

But when the university complaints officer asked for specific dates to back up my story, I didn’t have the answers. Nothing recorded in Google Calendar and no lingering texts or emails to thread a timeline together. ‘Make sure you delete those messages,’ he’d said. And I had done so, relishing in the secrecy of our taboo relationship. There was no trail for them to find. I was protecting our privacy. Our little secret.

Later, more memory lapses. When the police officer asked how long he’d pinned me to the wall in an empty pub, I couldn’t remember. Seconds? Minutes? Eternity? The pub’s CCTV camera didn’t remember either, it only has a 30-day lifespan. As a privacy and anti-surveillance advocate, I applaud that. As an individual desperately looking for digital breadcrumbs, I was dismayed.

I diligently excavated my li­­­­­­­­­­fe in search of anything that would corroborate my story. Digging through email archives. Scrolling up, up, up through Facebook Messenger. But I had done such a good job at scrubbing the digital trail clean. I turned to the analog and found it there, in the depths of the most excruciating pages of my hand-written journal, which I scanned and sent to the complaints officer I had never met. It was all I had.

In those moments, rather than a source of empowerment and dignity, privacy was being used against me.

After that, I didn’t hear anything. ‘Unfortunately, I can’t provide you updates,’ they told me, ‘because the complaints process is private and confidential.’ It seemed absurd that I could share the most revealing details of an extremely vulnerable time in my life, and yet will never know the outcome. I will never know what action was taken, if any at all. I will never know if his face fell when confronted, panicked, if only for a moment, that he might suffer the consequences of his actions. Because, apparently, that’s private.


I’ve been a privacy advocate for years. Privacy has dominated my resume, and I now spend my days writing, speaking and working on campaigns to promote it on both a collective and individual level. I see protecting privacy as a fundamental way to examine and redistribute power in the digital age. When details of our lives are captured and commodified under surveillance capitalism, protecting privacy is how we fight back. When our data is weaponised against us in punitive algorithmic systems, protecting privacy is how we reduce harm and practice community care.

And yet in those moments, rather than a source of empowerment and dignity, privacy was being used against me.

Digital rights advocates regularly emphasise that privacy is about power. Activist and lawyer Lizzie O’Shea has argued that digital privacy is a class issue, highlighting how companies harvest and manipulate data for targeted advertising in ways that penalise poor people. Michael Fertik has gone so far as to say that the rich see a different internet than the poor. I would agree.

Most of this happens without our active involvement. Companies pick up our digital scraps and paste them together into some kind of collage—a warped and reductive representation of who we are, ready to be categorised and optimised for personalisation and profit.

But people without power are also routinely stripped of privacy in more direct and mundane ways. Privacy advocates (myself included) can emphasise that everyone has a right to privacy, but that means very little to those who are expected to willingly and gratefully hand over information in order to access the most basic of services or in the pursuit of justice. This isn’t the same for those in power, who not only expect their privacy to be upheld, but who also develop systems in which it is protected.

I’m certainly not the only person who has had to retell their story in excruciating detail in the hope of being believed. The adversarial nature of the criminal justice system requires that privacy entirely be abandoned for survivors who want to hold perpetrators to account in formal ways. Beyond that, privacy has a pretty conflicted history when it comes to the liberation of women and queer people—it can be both a fundamental safety mechanism as well as a potent threat. It has been used as a shield behind which abhorrent behaviour and abuse was permitted in the private sphere of the home, but it is also a key way victim-survivors can protect themselves from ongoing abuse.

Everyone has a right to privacy, but that means little to those who are expected to hand over information to access the most basic of services.

This isn’t the only area where those without power are expected to relinquish their privacy and say thank you for the opportunity. Under the new Workforce Australia program, welfare recipients are expected to provide information including disability, illness, mental health and caring obligations to be fed into a decision-making system to receive ‘personalised support’ (aka punitive mutual obligations). Failure to hand over deeply personal details can result in payments being cut off, and despite saying that consent to handle sensitive information could be withdrawn, this turned out to be false. And what does ‘consent’ mean anyway, if it’s a choice between your privacy and being able to afford to eat. This isn’t the first time the Australian government has sought to use automated systems to ‘manage’ poor people (never forget Robodebt), but it does serve as a reminder that those in power see no problem in undermining the privacy of those perceived to be beneath them through punitive digital technologies. Wealthy people would never be expected to provide such intimate details of their lives to the government.

If you’re a renter, good luck finding housing if you don’t want to provide your whole life story. Real estate agents and online application services collect immense amounts of information, often far beyond what is necessary. If you refuse to provide extensive information (like a background check, full bank statements, and years’ worth of employment and rental history) or answer invasive questions (Why are you leaving your current property? Do you show up to work on time? What is your pet’s name?) on the grounds of privacy, you are likely to find yourself passed over for another more ‘favourable’ tenant to live in that uninsulated, overpriced house. If you’re completing an application online and don’t complete all of the fields, you simply won’t be able to apply at all. This invasion of privacy exacerbates the power imbalance between renters and landlords, and in some cases can result in people being cut off from housing altogether. Meanwhile, most renters will never even know their landlord’s name.

The experience and expectations of privacy also differ along racial lines. In Summer Heat, prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba highlights the racial disconnect in discussions about privacy and civil liberties. ‘Black people have always been under the gaze of the state and we know that our rights are routinely violable,’ she says. Kaba goes on to highlight the impossibility of exercising individual rights within a context of more generalised social, economic and political oppression. ​

Closer to home, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are regularly stripped of their privacy through disproportionate surveillance under the ongoing colonial project. And this doesn’t just come from the state, as Nyungar technologist and activist Kat Gledhill-Tucker highlights in Innovation​ under Digital Colonialism: ‘modern technology is rooted in imperial power that can perform imperial harm…technology is quickly replicating existing structures of power and wealth accumulation’. Refugees and asylum seekers are also routinely surveilled, often under the justification of national security. In a dark irony, while they are closely watched by those in power, the intense secrecy about their living conditions effectively hides their treatment from public scrutiny. In one of the most serious data breaches in Australia’s history, a database of almost 10,000 asylum seekers’ personal information (including their full name, date of birth, location and boat arrival details) was publicly disclosed. In a stunning demonstration of government priorities, it took a whole six years before the Department of Immigration and Border Force was ordered to pay compensation to those harmed.

The state and private companies are united in their efforts to use data harvested from privacy-invasive practices and technologies against those without power. But privacy itself can also be used against people. For me, it undermined my complaint and prevented me from getting the kind of closure I sought; for others, it can mean far worse. There’s a conflict here because the right to privacy offers very real protections for marginalised or oppressed people. On an individual level, it can protect people from doxxing, stalking or discrimination based on misuse of their personal information. On a societal one, it can safeguard our ability to organise, protest, and hold those in power to account. Having spent years working to uphold privacy as a way to empower people, it’s depressing to see it used as a weapon. But pretending it’s not used that way won’t help anyone either.

Having spent years working to uphold privacy as a way to empower people, it’s depressing to see it used as a weapon. But pretending it’s not used that way won’t help anyone either.

All of this brings me back to the allure and tension of ephemerality. Despite the illusion of permanence, things on the internet don’t always last forever. Links break, accounts get deactivated, web domains expire and content gets lost. Sometimes, people (like me) go out of their way to prevent digital permanence, but that can come at a cost. One of my favourite features of the encrypted messaging app Signal is disappearing messages—I can’t remember every single detail of what you said to me four years ago, and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think I should be able to Ctrl+F our entire conversation history. Some of the most precious parts of life are beautiful because they are fleeting.

And yet, trawling through my own digital life in search of hints that might support my case, I found myself wishing I had my very own personal Wayback Machine. It was a paradox: I wanted the internet to remember an experience I would rather forget.


The quality of forgetting in the digital age isn’t just some esoteric thought exercise, it’s actively being considered by lawmakers looking to govern how long information should be retained, and for what purpose. If you live in Europe, you have ‘the right to be forgotten’. This means you have a right to request that your personal information be erased, and in the case of search engines, you can request that links be removed to make the information harder to find.

The right to be forgotten has roots in the French term ‘droit à l’oubli’—the idea that after a period of time people shouldn’t have certain prior criminal convictions permanently follow them around. It holds that previous actions shouldn’t define you forever and that you shouldn’t be subject to ongoing prejudice or stigma once you have made atonement in the eyes of the law.

Why shouldn’t we be able to play a role in deciding what information about us is readily available to others?

In a time where it’s possible for every detail of our lives to be tracked and logged, the right to be forgotten is pretty alluring. Why shouldn’t we be able to play a role in deciding what information about us is readily available to others? Critics sounded the alarm that it would mean the end of freedom of speech, and lead to the erasure of history or the concealment of particularly dangerous individuals. While those fears were overwrought—the European law explicitly calls for requests to be forgotten to be balanced with freedom of information and the public interest—it certainly does raise some questions about how we should manage the digital archives of our lives, and when and which people or actions shouldn’t be forgotten.

It is striking to me that the origin of the right to be forgotten is based on a concept of enabling people to live a life beyond a criminal conviction. To recognise that people are more than their mistakes, that we deserve opportunities to learn, change and forget, that punishment is not the same as accountability, and that a collection of data points is not the sum of a person’s identity. It feels like a nod to the future of the digital rights movement and its relationship with prison abolition. It is no coincidence that the most harmful applications of digital technologies are those based on the carceral logic of surveillance, punishment and control. Given that surveillance is a key enabling tool of state-sanctioned violence (policing), the fight for privacy should be squarely placed within the creation of an abolitionist liberatory future.

On a personal level, this helps to deal with the tensions that arise between theory and practice, between collective rather than individual freedoms.

Part of the fight to build a world in which technology supports rather than exploits people means navigating the contradictions of wanting a future which does not yet exist. Privacy acted as a barrier for me as something I imposed upon myself and as something imposed on me. But this isn’t a blight against the merit of the right to privacy. Rather, it’s an indication of a broader structural problem in which information—who hoards it, who has to give it away—continues to be subject to immense power asymmetries. It also points to the need for alternative, non-carceral forms of justice—in which, I hope, privacy can play an empowering role.