by Chad Sniffen, Online Resource Coordinator, National Sexual Violence Resource Center
In the modern information era, information technology (IT) tools provide incredible opportunities to expand people’s knowledge and awareness of the world around them. Technology provides many benefits to programs and can enhance services and expand reach. These tools, while amazingly beneficial, are like other tools that can be used to do harm as well. Violence against women comes in many forms and, in this digital age, technology is an ever-evolving tool being misused as a tactic to perpetuate harassment, stalking, and abuse. As we strive to end gender-based violence and inequality, addressing technology safety is critical.
Despite the usefulness of these tools, survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual violence are often the first to experience the dangers of new technologies. The obsessive motivations of abusers and sexual predators often drive them to explore abusive uses of new technologies before survivors, technology companies, law enforcement, and laws have a chance to respond to, or defend against, these new uses. Abusive partners and stalkers, in particular, find that many IT tools enhance their ability to monitor, threaten, and intimidate their victims. Sexually violent perpetrators may also use these tools to target and harass victims, manipulate their sense of safety, isolate them from social support, or coerce them into silence. In general, motivated predators will often find novel ways to warp the intended use of new technologies to suit their own purposes.
Recommendations for survivor safety in the information era are not specific to any particular IT tool, but based in broad principles such as limiting the distribution of personal information and managing exposure to hacking. These principles are simple, yet effective – if consistently practiced.
Limiting the Distribution of Personal Information
The need to limit the distribution of personal information is, for many survivors, one of the most disappointing realities of safety in the information era. Participation in social media and the personal connection and support this can bring relies on sharing personal experiences: photos, stories, friend lists, likes and dislikes, thoughts about places and events, reviews of good places to eat, etc. Survivors must balance the benefits of sharing personal information on social media with the risks of informing predators about locations, habits, and vulnerabilities.
Limiting friend lists to true friends, excluding ‘friends of friends,’ understanding current privacy settings, and thinking about how any piece of shared information may be misused are all key elements of controlling the distribution of your personal information. Beyond online spaces, limiting the amount of information shared on any platform to the minimum necessary, whether it’s a billing account at your electric company or a rewards card at a grocery store, can help survivors avoid unwanted sharing of their key information. Where legally permissible, some people find it helpful to consistently share the same set of misinformation (such an incorrect address, birthday, telephone number, etc.) so that accounts can still be unlocked with that personal information if needed, but an abusive intimate partner with knowledge of the real information would be unable to gain the same access.
Another key piece of personal information is a survivor’s physical location. Most technology tools are ‘location aware’ in some way, even if they do not come with GPS capabilities. Any device that can connect to the internet can sense the location of its internet service provider in a broad way. Because of this, it is critically important for survivors to be aware of the way their devices use location data, and their ability to restrict sharing of that information. Often, the only truly secure way to safeguard location data is to turn a device off and disconnect it from its power supply. In situations where disconnecting a power supply is not practical (as with many modern mobile devices), survivors should consult with device manufacturers and salespeople about securing location data on those devices.
Managing Exposure to Hacking
Limiting the public distribution of personal information can become futile if privately held data becomes exposed through unauthorized access (hacking). Though typically a person might think about protecting email or social media accounts from hacking, any online account that holds personal information, along with any physical device that a survivor might use, can be a hacking opportunity for predators. Physical devices may include routers, modems, web cameras, smart appliances, car navigation systems, and other devices that survivors may have relatively little interaction with but exist in their physical space.
Although the options for protecting online accounts and physical devices from hacking can vary widely, two general principles are fairly universal:
- Learn about and use available security options; and,
- Set strong and unique passwords whenever possible.
In particular, using a small set of (often similar) passwords for a large variety of accounts or devices is a common security practice that creates broad vulnerability to a motivated predator, especially if that person has been a past intimate partner and may be familiar with some of the passwords or devices a survivor uses.
The most practical way to manage a large number of unique passwords is to use a password management app (see Key Resources below). Both Apple and Google provide free password management features on devices they sell, and there are free and paid password management apps available for most types of computer operating systems and mobile devices. Password management apps allow you to generate and store complex, unique passwords for any purpose while only having to remember one master password.
Though there are many other important considerations for survivor safety online, limiting the distribution of personal information and using strong, unique passwords to prevent hacking will go a long way towards helping any survivor to be less vulnerable to predators online. Listed below are some key resources where survivors can learn more about staying safe in the information era.
VAWnet Special Collection: Safety & Privacy in a Digital World (Updated January 2018)
NNEDV Safety Net Project: Managed by the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), this blog discusses technology, privacy, and safety in the context of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, and violence against women and offers the following resources:
- Safety & Privacy on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse in English, Spanish (Latin America), French, Arabic, and more
- A Guide to Staying Safe on Facebook
- Technology Safety & Privacy: A Toolkit for Survivors
Stop. Think. Connect. is a national public awareness campaign aimed at increasing the understanding of cyber threats and empowering the American public to be safer and more secure online.
The Five Best Password Managers by Lifehacker.com, posted 8/22/2017. This article that reviews five popular password managers. Many other such articles can be found with a simple search for the term “password managers review.”