In the old days, domestic partner abusers would tear the phone from the wall to prevent their victim from calling for help. Later, telephones gave way to pagers, where the abuser would contact their victim hourly, forcing them to call back or face violent consequences. Nowadays, technology is more sophisticated as both abusers and victims have access to smartphones.
While many mobile apps are available to help victims of domestic violence, there are many tools for abusers to spy on their victims. While most creators of apps designed for abuse victims are careful not to give them obvious names that would send a red flag to abusers who check their victim’s emails, texts and browser histories, they also need to consider other factors in designing apps so that they work properly when they are needed.
With October designated National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Not Impossible Now spoke with Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), where she is vice president of development and innovation, about what they are doing to help domestic violence victims.
The project, which she founded 12 years ago to explore the relationship between technology and domestic violence, is now developing a website review center, which tests anti-domestic violence mobile apps and points out their strengths and weaknesses. Southworth says the idea is not to shame those developers with flaws in their apps, but to make them aware of the shortcomings so they can be most beneficial to their target audience. The review center also serves as a clearinghouse of information for secure apps that can serve as models for other app developers. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
NIN: What can you tell me about your review of domestic violence mobile applications?
Cindy Southworth: We’re creating an application safety center where we provide information for practitioners and domestic violence survivors about the new emergence of smartphone apps that are being developed. Some of them are educational. Some of them are signs and tips of what to look for. Is a relationship controlling?
What we’re trying to climb into is to look at these apps and think, “How is this app designed if the survivor wanted to use the app? What are some of the safety things to consider beyond the obvious, such as you have an app on your phone that your abuser is checking 24 hours a day?”
Also, some of the apps collect personal information, which we have concerns about. We want to say, “If you’re using this app, be sure you’re aware of what you’re consenting to share, where it’s going and why you’d be giving it over.” There are great creative apps out there, but we want to help people navigate the landscape because there are so many of them.
Who are the people who use these apps?
Cindy: Survivors, practitioners (shelters, victims’ advocates, etc.) and bystanders (friends, family, interested community members).
When did the review start?
Cindy: It sort of started organically because we’re the good housekeeping technology experts for the domestic violence and sexual assault prevention movement. Whenever there’s any new tech thing that comes out, we get an email asking us, “Hey, did you see this? What do you think?” and then we climb in and look at how the technology is structured. We also take a look at how it’s designed, [if there is] full and informed consent and is it making promises to the victim that can’t be backed up.
What is your organization doing to make apps safer?
Cindy: One thing we found early on is that apps that were supposed to be used on Android and iPhones, but when we tested them, they didn’t work on all platforms. So we tell people before you download an app be sure you test it before you rely on it.
If you download an app that promises to contact your friends (in the event of a domestic violence emergency), make sure you’ve tested it multiple times, and especially after you do an operating system update. Every time there’s an OS update, things get glitchy.
We got some funding from the Verizon Foundation to do research on about 50 apps and then created a handout that was sort of a “before you embark” app for practitioners. Sometimes we get calls from nonprofits that have gotten a grant from a community group to create an app, and they want to know what they should do. We’ll give them guidance and advice. We’re not experts on app development, but what we are experts in is survivor safety so we’ll give them things to think about when they’re in the technology space.
We’re going to take that research we did and synthesize it down to short paragraph summary nuggets that someone can go in and read about other apps — their strengths and their limitations. From there, we hope two things will happen: 1) people will read about the strengths and challenges of other apps, so when they’re developing their own, they’ll take that into consideration, and 2) if we identify limitations, we’ll reach out to the developers first, point out significant issues and give them a chance to resolve the problems before they go up on our website.
Has the Ray Rice incident brought domestic violence into focus?
Cindy: Absolutely. It’s been all over social media and people are engaging on a more nuanced discussion of the issues than I’ve ever seen in all my years of this work. The downside, and what I’m heartbroken about, domestic violence is already a complicated issue, and I am appalled, aghast and really fed up with the focus on one particular victim, because she was caught on camera when she was being assaulted. People feel they can make comments on her choices and we don’t do that to other types of crime victims.
Where do you see in terms of technology in being a tool or aid in helping victims?
Cindy: Technology itself will not end domestic violence. However, technology can be used as a tool that aids communities to stand up and speak out via social media platforms. For example, there are grant programs that allow police departments to buy cameras to install and cover the front and back porches of a house of a victim who has a restraining order against an abuser. There are innovative ways that technology is being used to enhance what we can do on our own.
For more information about the Safety Net Technology Project’s resources, go to www.techsafety.org.
Top photo credit: iStock/pcruciatti