Tech Can Do More to Help Survivors of Abuse. Here’s Where to Start

Posted by on Mar 28, 2017 in IT News | 0 comments

Tech Can Do More to Help Survivors of Abuse. Here’s Where to Start

For adults dealing with abuse from an intimate partner, technology can be both an empowering tool and a potential source of risk. But a team of Google researchers hopes to spur the tech community to make their products easier to use for survivors—and build more potentially life-saving tools into their products.

An intimate partner abuser is in a unique position to turn someone’s technological world against them. They may know passwords, or be able to get them, and may even be in a position to place spyware on mobile devices to monitor web browsing, or get real-time location data. For those suffering abuse, a home computer may help connect with outside resources for help, but it can also reveal an escape plan.

The challenge of using technology in a secure and private way can make an already traumatic situation even more stressful for abuse survivors. To study this dynamic, a team at Google collaborated with organizations like Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA) to gather data about survivors’ technology use, create a framework to describe this digital engagement, and draw some conclusions about how developers can build or improve their technologies with survivors of intimate partner abuse in mind. One team member, Sunny Consolvo, is presenting the findings today at the Enigma security conference in Oakland. (The group will release its paper at the Association for Computing Machinery CHI conference in May.)

“We couldn’t find much in the literature that was focused on helping technology designers address this population, so that’s a big reason we’re focused on it,” says Consolvo, whose user experience research at Google focuses on usable privacy and security. “The better we can design for folks in these situations, the better [technology] becomes for everyone.”

It’s also a large population to address. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the US one in three women, and 1 in four men, have been victims of intimate partner abuse at some point in their lives. “It’s not a mild social issue, it’s an epidemic,” says Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, who was not involved in the Google research. “It’s a staggering number of people.”

A Range of Solutions

The Google team’s study looks specifically at adult intimate partner abuse (domestic violence more broadly also includes things like child abuse, and teens can also experience intimate partner abuse), and identifies three phases of technology use by survivors: Physical control, Escape, and Life Apart. In the first phase, the survivor uses technology while still living with, or regularly interacting with, their abuser. This means the abuser probably has regular physical access to a victim’s devices. The second phase addresses the transition period away from an abuser—full separation often takes multiple attempts—which combines periods of physical proximity with periods of being apart. In the third phase, the survivor has separated from their abuser, and wants to avoid being found while strengthening their support network.

Even if you haven’t been in an abusive relationship, it’s not hard to imagine the ways in which using technology can quickly become thorny. Text messages, social networks, and email can be indispensable for preventing an abuse survivor’s isolation, but can also become oppressive if and when an abuser finds a way to log into those accounts or do other types of surveillance. A browser can be key for planning an escape, but a search history can also betray those plans.

Though the study found, and experts agree, that there are many generalizable aspects of technology use for survivors, it’s also clear that technology needs to be flexible enough to account for the nuance of people’s lives. “We found lots of ways that technology is already working for survivors,” Consolvo says. “But these situations are often unique, it’s really complicated. And this is a population that’s motivated to look into those more advanced privacy and security features even though they’re available for anyone.”

In its recommendations, the study emphasizes the importance of designing privacy and security tools that are easy to use. Survivors are often already under intense strain when they use digital tools, which can contribute to errors when attempting to browse privately, clear a search history, or delete data. The study found that privacy and security tutorials that walk users through available options are valuable for helping survivors understand what’s possible. Offering granular controls in the first place is another crucial element, especially in the Life Apart phase when a survivor wants to use technology relatively normally, but still has potential digital overlap with their abuser.

Awareness First

Google already incorporates some of these conclusions in features like two-step verification, Chrome’s Incognito Mode, the Google Account Privacy Checkup, and the Security Checkup. Other companies like Facebook offer privacy and security walkthroughs, too. And services that provide sign-in logs, like Google and Twitter, can help survivors know if someone else logs into their accounts, what the IP address was, and where the sign-in took place. But not all companies offer such a full suite of tools, and few technology products on the market today were built with specific user-interface consideration for abuse survivors. Even the valuable tools that already exist might be tweaked or designed differently if intimate partner abuse were being taken into consideration. These takeaways may seem somewhat self-evident, but the important step is the work to compile and codify them in a way that is specifically accessible to the tech community.

“We’re domestic violence experts so we work with survivors all the time, but we’re not technology experts and technology changes so quickly,” says Cori Manthorne, the director of programs at Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse, who worked on the study. “We all do our best to keep up, but things are out of date within moments. And there are so many things that we just can’t really understand that happen behind the scenes of how information gets transmitted.”

The researchers emphasize that this study is only a first step to exploring how technology can best support survivors at each phase of their lives. And other organizations like the National Network to End Domestic Violence have done extensive work since the early 2000s to create tech-use resources. This new effort, though, is an important and even unprecedented step toward raising awareness of something the tech community has never broadly considered.

“People don’t often think about enlightening developers on the nuances of what domestic violence is. It’s not just about a punch, it’s much more insidious and pervasive and it explains why it’s so hard for survivors to escape,” says NNEDV’s Southworth. “So to have really smart, creative, committed tech folks looking at this is huge.”