Technology-Facilitated Intimate Partner Abuse

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-09-27
Keywords: Computer Security

In my experience, most classes on computer security discuss things like hackers using buffer overflow exploits to steal credit card information. They rarely mention that if you go to a family shelter in the middle of the night to escape a physically abusive partner, one of the first things they get you to do is turn off your phone, because whoever is abusing you has probably installed spyware to track your location and read your texts and email.

Leitao2019 is a good introduction to so-called "intimate threats". In it, the author describes how the tools and skills used to "keep tabs on her" are shared in online forums, how the software sold by the surveillance industry to keep children safe is routinely repurposed to control the victims of domestic abuse, and the advice that victims and survivors share amongst themselves (which is sometimes inaccurate or incomplete). The paper does not offer any simple conclusions or remedies; instead, I think it can and should spark discussion about everything from what data apps should collect and share to what legal sanctions programmers and their employers should face for creating things that they know are use to do harm.

Leitao2019 is uncomfortable reading, which is why I think our profession prefers to focus on scenarios where business profits are threatened rather than ones where the targets are merely vulnerable people. Precisely because of that, I think the security and ethics lectures in most software engineering courses would be more likely to actually change students' beliefs and behaviors if their starting point was research like this.

Footnote: if you have been enjoying these posts, please take a minute and make a small donation to a family shelter near you.

Leitao2019 Roxanne Leitão: "Technology-Facilitated Intimate Partner Abuse: a qualitative analysis of data from online domestic abuse forums". Human–Computer Interaction, 36(3), 2019, 10.1080/07370024.2019.1685883.

This article reports on a qualitative analysis of data gathered from three online discussion forums for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. The analysis focussed on technology-facilitated abuse and the findings cover three main themes, namely, 1) forms of technology-facilitated abuse being discussed on the forums, 2) the ways in which forum members are using technology within the context of intimate partner abuse, and 3) the digital privacy and security advice being exchanged between victims/survivors on the forums. The article concludes with a discussion on the dual role of digital technologies within the context of intimate partner abuse, on the challenges and advantages of digital ubiquity, as well as on the issues surrounding digital evidence of abuse, and the labor of managing digital privacy and security.