Does current cybersecurity models work for victims of intimate partner violence?

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“A Stalker’s Paradise”: How Intimate Partner Abusers Exploit Technology

Our digital technology allows us to keep track of our whereabouts, conversations, schedules and more. This tracking is put in place in an atmosphere of trust; that the tracking is consensual, or that the monitor and monitored are one and the same. The existence of powerful surveillance tools made available with blind trust has far-reaching implications for intimate partner violence, which is being made worse by abusers’ access to their victims’ digital life.

Freed et al.’s research identified the importance of digitally-enabled abuse in the context of intimate partner violence through a combination of individual and focus group interviews. Discussions touched on the various ways technology was used by perpetrators to harass, control, and spy on their current or former partners.

The study was held in New York City. Both survivors and professionals were recruited with the help of the city’s five Family Justice Centers; where social workers, therapists, attorneys, and prosecutors aid intimate partner violence victims. Eleven focus groups were held with thirty-nine survivors, and eightynine individual interviews were conducted with these survivors and fifty professionals.

The study uncovered four ways in which technology was exploited during intimate partner violence. Many victims had phones that were bought or paid-for by their abusers, allowing them to hold power over their monitoring features and use. Alternatively, easy-to-use, widely available spyware tools allowed culprits to compromise their partners’ devices in order to monitor them. Some violent partners turned to text messages or social media posts to contact, harass, harm, threaten, and humiliate their targets and involve their friends and family. Finally, abusers violated the privacy of their victims and exposed them to risks, by posting their personal information or intimate images on the Internet.

Intimate and family violence settings provide a unique security scenario that is difficult to manage with current technology. Abusers may have formal ownership of the devices used by their victims, control their accounts and be inextricably enmeshed in their social networks. Current models of security struggle to deal with authenticated but adversarial users of a system. Digital technology provides additional mechanisms for monitoring that could contribute to enabling the coercive control of victims of intimate partner violence. Consideration for this security scenario and these victims should be incorporated into the design of software and victim support programs.

Intimate and family violence settings create a scenario where the device user is threatened by the device owner. Current security policies and technologies do not protect these victims.