Privacy Advisor

Where Domestic Violence and Technology Collide

July 25, 2013

By Angelique Carson, CIPP/US

Cindy Southworth grew up with a dad she affectionately calls an “uber-geek.” Going back 35 years, he was a systems administrator who’d often have spare computer parts splayed out across the kitchen table. She recalls tagging along with dad when he went off somewhere to fix someone’s broken-down mainframe (nowadays, he's widely known in IT security circles and does work for DHS and Interpol). At the time, she had no interest in technology. Rather, she had her sights set on saving the world—in particular, saving women from violent situations.

But years later, after she’d collected a Master’s Degree in social work, her early roots in technology became an unexpected asset. In fact, she didn’t have to choose a career in social work over her roots in technology. Instead, she combined the two.

Today she runs the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), comprising some 2000 shelters and 56 state-level non-profit organizations. Safety Net works with state agencies to address the ways in which technology issues impact the safety—including privacy and accessibility rights—of domestic violence victims. It also trains law enforcement and social services teams, among others, on how to hold perpetrators responsible for misusing technology.

The NNEDV holds its annual its annual Technology Summit next week, July 29-31, in San Jose, California. There, law enforcement will be trained on how to gather electronic evidence when a protection order is involved or how to obtain the proper warrant when it comes to social media, for example. Sessions this year are on such topics as cell-phone spoofing, computer/cellphone spyware, phone location, the legal and safety responses to images posted without consent—an increasingly common form of Web harassment and abuse—employed by perpetrators to intimidate victims.

Southworth’s path to the project began just over 10 years ago, not long after college, when she was recruited to work on a protection order database because of her history with both technology and victims’ rights.

“It was through that that I realized how our entire field, the entire end-violence-against-women movement was not very tech savvy,” Southworth said, “and it was a problem because domestic violence affects everybody at every income level, and so lots and lots of victims of domestic violence and stalking were using technology to find help, and the architects that built the hotlines didn’t know how to install data security and firewalls and didn’t know about spyware.”

I realized how our entire field, the entire end-violence-against-women movement was not very tech savvy and it was a problem because domestic violence affects everybody at every income level.
Cindy Southworth, Safety Net Project

Safety Net—which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Verizon Foundation, Verizon Wireless and The Wireless Foundation—has trained more than 60,000 police, prosecutors and others internationally. It also advocates for policies on local, federal and international levels to ensure the civil rights of victims—including fighting to keep survivors’ addresses and phone numbers offline, increasing the security of databases housing sensitive personal information about victims and improving the privacy protections agencies practice when it comes to technology products. Finally, the project advocates for perpetrators to be held “fully accountable for using technology to stalk and abuse.”

Southworth said that when she founded the project all those years ago, she began telling people to prepare to start hearing stories about victims trying to use technology for help and running into trouble.

“There were stories I was hearing about abusers beating up victims to get people to hand over e-mail passwords,” she said. “For example, (the offender) can’t fathom that (the victim) might have en e-mail conversation with her sister and he not know what she’s saying. The stories have been inspiring and chilling, but they really keep me going every day.”

As an experiment a few years back, in order to “walk the walk,” Southworth attempted to legally live off the grid. She purchased a personal post-office box, got a virtual voicemail number from Google Voice and had anything that required shipping sent to her roommate. It’s an existence many of the victims Southworth aims to protect live every day.

“It was exhausting,” she said. “I had a real phone number, a work cell number and a fake number. And I would panic when people would ask me. Or every time someone asked for my address, I had to think, ‘Do I give my P.O. box? My home address?’”

As time has progressed and technology has advanced, companies have become increasingly interested in working to bake in privacy features that would help all consumers, of course, but especially domestic violence victims.

Google, for example, approached the project before rolling out Latitude, its soon-to-be-retired location-sharing app, to be sure that it wouldn’t negatively affect users. To protect privacy, it enabled a “splash screen” to ensure that if someone else turned on a user’s location sharing, they would be notified.

“We got to test it before it launched,” Southworth says, “And we’ve done similar things with Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter.”

The NNEDV joined Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board in 2010. It helped the social media giant to hone its Frequently Asked Questions site and helped it craft its “Safety Page.” The site’s announcement of the partnership said it works with the NNEDV to help protect survivors of dating violence, domestic abuse and stalking when building new products.

A Facebook spokesperson told The Privacy Advisor that the NNEDV is a “valued and instrumental partner” and that its participation on Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board has given it “thoughtful insight on the unique needs of survivors of dating violence and domestic abuse.”

Facebook’s “report a violation” page includes the NNEDV’s hotline number, stating, “If someone is controlling or monitoring your activity on Facebook, you have options…If this is someone you’re currently in a relationship with, it could be a sign of relationship abuse.”

At times, Southworth has reached out to companies whose services could potentially put victims at risk to ask that they make changes. But in general, Southworth’s approach is not to shame companies but rather to engage them in dialogue about doing the right thing, she said.

“We’ve had some great situations where we’ve said, ‘We need an exception for this one victim,’ or, ‘Would you be willing to change your protocol?’ And sometimes they can, and sometimes they can’t. It just depends.”

Read More by Angelique Carson:
Warning Bells for an Enforcement Tsunami? Regulators and CPOs Weigh In
Facebook’s White Hat Program Helped Uncover Glitch
Former U.S. Rep Bono Joins Leibowitz to Co-Chair New Privacy Coalition
If Nine of 10 Employees Knowingly Breach Policy, How Is Privacy Possible?