Technology is an essential part of our lives. This fact has been made abundantly clear over the last two years as we all faced a shift to virtual reality for multiple facets of our lives. For many of us, making the shift resulted in the stress of learning new technologies and extreme zoom fatigue. For survivors of domestic violence, technology can be a tool used to create connection, find resources, and plan for safety. It also can be a vehicle through which perpetrators of domestic violence enact abuse. The more reliant our society becomes on technology, the more opportunities there are for technology to be misused to coerce, control, and abuse survivors. And because of the increased isolation as a result of the COVID-19 quarantine, there has been an increased opportunity for perpetrators of abuse to misuse the technology that survivors need for their day to day lives.
It’s important to remember: technology isn’t the problem.
Technology is simply a tool that perpetrators of violence use to enact tactics meant to maintain power and control over the person they are harming. Removing technology doesn’t remove the abuse. In fact, in addition to the need to access technology for basic aspects of living (work, finances, education, information, etc) survivors' access to technology is often an essential part of safety planning, decreasing isolation, and locating resources. Identifying ways to increase safety, privacy, and confidentiality online and hold perpetrators accountable for misuse is an important part of the work to support survivors and prevent domestic violence.
How can survivors stay safe online?
We know that the only person to blame for abuse is the person choosing to harm someone else. However, just like all other aspects of safety planning, survivors can take steps to increase their safety online to help prevent or mitigate the impact of the misuse. (Note: Not just for survivors -- we all could benefit from increasing our technology safety to protect our own privacy online).
Because technology can be complex and confusing, it’s important to remember that there are simple steps that we can take to increase our safety in online spaces. A few examples of quick actions you can take that will make a huge difference are:
- Update, update update! Make sure you keep your devices updated so that any vulnerabilities identified about the software can be fixed.
- Set strong passwords. The easiest way to keep someone from accessing your accounts or devices is to set passwords or passcodes that are hard to guess. Bonus points for changing them frequently and using two factor authentication to ensure that there’s an extra step preventing unauthorized access.
- Check your device settings. Does that app on your phone really need to have access to your contacts and location? Are you location services turned on when they don’t need to be? Taking a look over your settings can help you customize the information you are sharing and how your apps function to best suit your needs.
- Be an informed consumer. This one is probably the most time-consuming, but take some time to read the terms and conditions when you sign up for new services. What are they collecting from you and what are they doing with it? What are you agreeing to in order to use the application itself and can you opt out if you want to?
- Use resources available on applications to document and report. Technology can be used to document and show patterns of abuse or help to uncover a digital trail that could identify the person misusing the technology. Also, many technology companies have ways in which you can report misuse or harassment in their programs, increase your safety, and improve your experience online.
How can you help survivors stay safe online?
- Believe, validate, and stay connected. This is no different than supporting survivors in non-technological spaces. But it’s even more important to recognize that tech misuse happens and how damaging it can be. Believe someone’s experience, be informed enough to validate that it is real, and stay connected (safely) to decrease isolation.
- Check in about technology safety. Share what you know and the resources available to support survivors in increasing safety in online spaces.
- Advocate for or against changes to technology that would result in privacy implications for survivors. Technology changes all the time. If you notice new features on your favorite applications, think about whether or not this is something that could increase or decrease safety for survivors and let the company know!
- Up your own tech safety game: Do your own technology check up, especially if you are communicating with a survivor through technology. It’s important that you have safe online practices to ensure that the people in your life are protected as well!
Want to learn more? Our colleagues at the National Network to End Domestic Violence have an amazing team of technology specialists in their Safety Net Project. They have loads of resources and toolkits available for survivors and organizations and their Tech Safety Blog has great information for anyone who is looking to learn more about technology safety.