Designing Against Domestic Violence

The reality of domestic violence doesn’t disappear when people enter the digital world. Abusers use technology to exploit and control their victims, meaning that technologists have a responsibility to ensure that users of our products are empowered to protect their safety. How can we prevent people with violent intentions from forms of abuse and control that are digital, such as browsing a victim’s computer, finding sensitive information about them online, or creating fake content in their name?

How can our products that involve real people, such as software for building managers, protect against an abuser talking their way past a building’s doorman whose uses software to track approved guests? While there’s no simple answer and ultimately no way to ensure our users’ safety in all situations, thoughtful considerations and small changes while designing and building products can and does result in meaningful contributions to people’s safety. This talk will explore how to think through a lens of safety, create those thoughtful considerations, and advocate for an emphasis on safety.

(Note there were a lot more supporting statistics cited in the talk, but as it was difficult to capture them all accurately I’ve opted to omit any I wasn’t reasonably sure I had right.)

Notes on this talk

  • Eva notes she has appropriate credentials to talk about this topic – she’s a trained rape crisis counselor and has trained hundreds more. She has moved into tech and has collected information on how tech is enabling domestic violence.
  • A note on language – while men are also victims, 95% of perpetrators are men and the language and examples reflect that.
  • The stories are true but anonymised.

Story: A young couple who have been dating for a year, he is emotionally abusing and controlling her. During an argument he pulls a phone from her hand and throws it against the wall. After this she recognises that things are getting worse, so she breaks up with him. But he begins stalking her and she can’t work out how he is tracking her. She attempts to turn off all the technological pathways she can think of, but he keeps turning up. She calls the family violence hotline and finds more things like her car’s GPS system. Once she disables the car’s tracking systems the the stalking finally stops.

81% of abuse victims are stalked by their abuser
1/6 women in Australia are stalked at some point in their lives

Designing against stalking

  • GPS/location must always be clear and obvious when in use. It’s frequently hidden, done in the background.
  • GPS and location sharing systems must always be easy to switch off.

Impact over intent – people don’t mean to design things that cause or enable harm. So this term is useful, because it shifts the focus to the impact and does not seek to blame. Yes there are exceptions. There are products and services literally designed in a way that guarantees harm, like stalkerware to “find cheating partners”.

Domestic violence relates to violence from an intimate partner.

(There were a lot of stats at this point, which clearly demonstrate the huge scale of the problem.)

Domestic violence is not an edge case.

Story: Isaac and Helen. A couple marries and open a joint account, but like most bank accounts Helen is added as the secondary account holder, creating a power imbalance that ultimately enables Isaac to completely financially control Helen.

90% of abusive relationships include financial abuse.

  • Joint accounts should be 100% joint accounts – separate access, inability for one person to cut the other off.
  • Financial software should flag suspicious actions that indicate financial abuse. The patterns are known and detectable.
  • Bankers, financial professionals and call centre staff should be trained on the warning signs of financial abuse and how to intervene.

CommBank has a Domestic and Family Violence Customer Support Program, which provides a phone number for victims to call. It had 87,000 calls in the first month in 2018; and in 10 months they helped 6000 people (95% women). The program was expanded after ten months, to train staff to identify at-risk customers.

A poor example is the federal government push to get people into couple’s counselling – which is actually terrible for survivors.

Story: Lisa is a software dev and her partner Ben has all the IoT ‘smart devices’ in the home. Over time he gets more controlling and uses the devices to monitor and harass his wife. He uses it to lock her out of the house, change the thermostat and harass her in other ways; then gaslight and berate her when she confronts him. He uses a ‘drop in’ feature of an IoT device to eavesdrop.

89% of DV support professionals who had cases involving misuse of technology in the past year.

  • who gets to control what? Homes with multiple adults, there should be safeguards to ensure they have equal access.
  • users must always be able to give consent to things like incoming communications
  • there should be a history log to show who had changed things and give proof of abusive behaviour

Story: Sandra’s husband Jake has been violent for years. She hopes it will stop now she’s pregnant, but it gets worse. At 4 months pregnant he throws her to the floor. She is recovering the next day and looks through her pregnancy health apps, trying to find a way to record the assault and learn about the likely impacts.

1/23 pregnant women experience physical DV in Australia

  • pregnancy and health-related products should plan for the reality of physical violence as a health factor in pregnant women’s lives
  • it is possible to include support pathways in apps when DV is detected, although it must be done very carefully

Considering cases of abusers using social engineering to access buildings:

  • Anti-guest list that could be given to front desk staff, with details on who not to allow into the building

25-31% of murders in Australia involve a current or ex intimate partner
In Australia 1 woman per week is murdered by her partner
Leaving a DV situation is the top cause of women becoming homeless

Designing for security

  • Research must include the stories of DV victims
  • Remember 1/3 women and 1/16 men will experience physical or sexual abuse by a partner
  • Imagine scenarios for abuse and design against them.
    • Black Mirror Brainstorm (Aaron Lewis)
    • Stress Testing (Sarah Wachter-Beottcher & Eric Meyer)
    • Domestive Violence Abuse Testing
  • Once scenarios are identified, look for solutions according to normal design process
  • Identify opportunities for safe and meaningful intervention. How can abuse be detected and what are safe ways to link victims with support services?

But what about….? (preparing for the ways people might try to avoid the work)

  • Is this really our responsibility?
    • Yes, if you say no you’re saying you’d rather wait for an incident. This is both unethical and a PR nightmare. The PR aspect can be good leverage when the ethical argument isn’t enough.
  • Won’t this stifle our creativity?
    • Do people think car designers are unfairly stifled by including safety features?
    • Limitations and constraints don’t limit creativity!
  • But this is just an MVP… we’ll do it later…
    • it’s not ok to put something dangerous into the world just because it’s an MVP. The impacts will begin from the MVP.
  • We should just focus on (some other thing) instead.
    • It’s a false choice – it’s not one or the other, you can do both. This is our job.

Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right. – Dumbledore