By Wendy Gittleson for Hack Reactor
For domestic violence victims, technology is a double-edged sword. Technology can be a tool for abusers, but it can also save lives.
Studies show that one in three people have experienced some sort of violence or stalking by an intimate partner. Through email, texts, social media, and tracking devices, technology has given stalkers tools that weren’t available in years past. The Journal of Family Violence found that between 62 - 72% of women (they did not study men) experienced stalking and 60 - 63% of women reported technology-based abuse from an intimate partner.
“Technology is not the only tactic; it is one of many,” Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (N.N.E.D.V.) told the New York Times. “Today’s technology offers new ways to perpetrate abuse, but the behaviors and the reasons for it are not new. Abusers want power and control over the other person, and this is just one more way to get that.”
Things are even worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as victims are forced to spend time with their abusers who may be facing unusual stress that can escalate to abuse.
“Currently, I think COVID and the isolation and fear that has brought is still one of the main challenges facing survivors,” Olsen said. “In regards to technology, there is a wide range of devices and services that abusers are using as tools to further abuse in ways that can be extremely terrifying.”
Olsen continued, “Constant monitoring and threats of exposing personal information on the internet keep survivors from feeling capable of leaving. The availability of data also stands out as a major concern for survivors right now as it impacts a person’s ability to safely leave and rebuild their life without the threat of being tracked down by the abusive person”.
Software engineers are taking the problems very seriously and they’re developing tools to keep domestic abuse and stalking victims safe.
SoSecure Mobile Safety App
ADT is the biggest name in home security, so it stands to reason that their existing technology could come to the aid of domestic violence victims. ADT’s SoSecure app allows users to silently contact 9-1-1, but that’s not all. The app provides activity tracking for potentially dangerous situations like blind dates. Before entering a situation, users set a timer for up to four hours. ADT and/or chosen “Guardians” (trusted contacts of your choice) can then track users’ movements via GPS. If everything is fine, the user just turns the timer off. If the timer goes off and it can’t be confirmed that the user is safe, ADT will contact 9-1-1.
Natalie Oleas, the Central Center Director for the Contra Costa Family Justice Center notes that phone-based apps are great, but the first thing many abusers do is take the victims’ phones, or at least check the victims’ phones. A company called ORA has developed a solution. They’ve designed pendants that look like jewelry but they have a button on the back that calls 9-1-1 whenever the wearer is in danger. The jewelry comes with interchangeable stones to change up the look. The app pairs to users’ cell phones but only needs to be within the vicinity of the phone to be activated.
The current technological challenge is to pack as many features into small, wearable devices as possible. Unfortunately, savvy abusers can easily take the wearables from their victims, rendering the devices useless. Sas has developed wearables that don’t let the abusers get close enough to take the device. The device, which looks like a FitBit, continuously collects data on the abuser’s location.
“If the wearables are tampered with, police and the victim are immediately notified,” says Sas CEO Kimberley Calhoun, whose sister was a victim of domestic violence. “If the offender is going near somewhere he shouldn’t, or is in the victim’s vicinity, the police and the victim receive an alert.”
The proactive alerts help officials respond in time to protect victims, and the recorded data is admissible evidence that can be used to convict offenders if they violate court orders, solving both problems identified by Calhoun in her sister’s case.
When she began developing the solution, Calhoun knew there were gaps in communications technologies that would need to be filled.
“The system had to allow the devices to communicate reliably even without the network. We had to ensure signal reliability. I knew we couldn’t depend on cell technology because coverage is an issue, so I filled that gap. I looked at where GPS failed and filled that gap. I layered and layered the technology until we had a failsafe system of communication to warn the victim and alert authorities,” says Calhoun.
The biggest problem, according to Oleas, is stalkers and abusers placing trackers on phones or on their victims’ cars.
“Trackers,” said Oleas, “can find anybody’s location anywhere. Trackers are half the size of a thumb drive.”
Trackers can easily go undetected on a phone, in a purse, or in a car.
Crowd GPScanner has developed a device that tracks tracking devices. You may have seemingly innocuous tracking devices, such as Tiles, which you might attach to your keys or wallet, but what happens if an abuser attaches a tracking device to a victim’s wallet or car, or a tracking app onto a victim’s phone? Crowd GPScanner notifies you of all tracking devices not paired with your phone. As you keep the app open, you’ll see which of those GPS tracking devices stay with you.
For victims who live with their abusers, privacy is a luxury. Abusers closely monitor phone usage and often retaliate when it’s discovered that their victim reaches out for help. Olsen adds that “survivors have used gaming apps or services to secretly and safely communicate with friends in order to plan their escape.”
WhatsApp has developed a secret messaging app that allows victims to reach out to friends, family, or other resources via text without leaving a virtual trail behind.
Their Kaboom app lets users set a self-destruct timer on all text messages and allows users to limit accessibility.