Protecting Victim Privacy While Increasing Law Enforcement Transparency: Finding the Balance with Police Data Initiatives

One of the hallmark efforts of the outgoing Obama administration has been the Police Data Initiative, launched to improve the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. The Police Data Initiative encourages local law enforcement agencies to publicly share information about 911 calls, stops, arrests, and other police activities so that community members can look both at individual cases, as in some high-profile events covered by the media, and at trends that might reveal disproportionate response over time.

It has been more than two decades since the Violence Against Women Act was first passed, and we have seen significant improvements in the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. This success is due in great part to the efforts of victim advocates and law enforcement officials working together to improve systems. But as we celebrate these successes, we know this work is far from finished, and that there is still much work to be done to improve police response - particularly within marginalized communities.

As we work with law enforcement to improve responses to victims and communities, we must ensure that the privacy and safety of victims who interact with law enforcement is a fundamental cornerstone of those efforts. Police data released to the public has the potential to reveal victims’ identities and consequently put them at risk of further harm, harassment, or damage to their reputation. These concerns can also significantly impact a survivor’s decision on whether they even contact law enforcement for help in an emergency.

For more than a year, Safety Net has explored the issue of how to maintain victim privacy and safety while simultaneously supporting the overall intention behind the Police Data Initiative. These efforts have been made possible by the support of the Office on Violence Against Women (U.S. Department of Justice) and Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and in partnership with the White House, the Police Foundation, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Sunlight Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Vera Institute of Justice, and others.

Today, we are pleased to announce the release of a guide that outlines the results of these efforts titled, “How Law Enforcement Agencies Releasing Open Data Can Protect Victim Privacy & Safety”, which was authored collaboratively with the Police Foundation. This guide describes the need for victim privacy to be a central consideration in efforts to share data with the public, and provides specific recommendations that will assist local law enforcement agencies in their efforts to ensure victim privacy while increasing transparency.

In the coming weeks, we will be releasing a similar guide written for advocates, as well as an issue summary that describes how the Police Data Initiative intersects with our work to ensure the safety and privacy of survivors.


YouTube’s New Tools Attempt to Address Online Harassment

Online harassment and abuse can take many forms. Threating and hateful comments turn up across online communities from newspapers to blogs to social media. Anyone posting online can be the target of these comments, which cross the line from honest disagreement to vengeful and violent attacks. This behavior is more than someone saying something you don’t like or saying something “mean” – it often includes ongoing harassment that can be nasty, personal, or threatening in nature. For survivors of abuse, threatening comments can be traumatizing, frightening, and can lead some people to not participate in online spaces.

YouTube recently created new tools to combat online abuse occurring within comments. These tools let users who post on their site choose words or phrases to “blacklist” as well as the option to use a beta (or test) version of a filter that will flag potentially inappropriate comments. With both tools, the comments are held for the user’s approval before going public. Users can also select other people to help moderate the comments.

Here’s a summary of the tools, pulled from YouTube:

  • Choose Moderators: This was launched earlier in the year and allows users to give select people they trust the ability to remove public comments.
  • Blacklist Words and Phrases: Users can have comments with select words or phrases held back from being posted until they are approved.
  • Hold Potentially Inappropriate Comments for Review: Currently available in beta, this feature offers an automated system that will flag and hold, according to YouTube’s algorithm, any potentially inappropriate comments for approval before they are published. The algorithm may, of course, pull content that the user thinks is fine, but it will improve in its detection based on the users’ choices.

Survivors who post online know that abusive comments can come in by the hundreds or even thousands. While many sites have offered a way to report or block comments, these steps have only been available after a comment is already public, and each comment may have to be reported one by one. This new approach helps to catch abusive comments before they go live, and takes the pressure off of having to watch the comment feed 24 hours a day.

These tools also offer survivors a means to be proactive in protecting their information and safety. Since many online harassment includes tactics such as doxing (where personal information of someone is posted online with the goal of causing them harm), a YouTube user can add their personal information to the list of words and phrases that are not allowed to be posted. This can include part or all of phone numbers, addresses, email addresses, or usernames of other accounts. Proactively being able to block someone from posting your personal content in this space will be a great tool.

Everyone has the right to express themselves safely online, and survivors should be able to fully participate in online spaces. Connecting with family and friends online helps protect against the isolation that many survivors experience. These new tools can help to protect survivors’ voices online.

Recognizing and Combating Technology-Facilitated Abuse

In addition to Domestic Violence Awareness Month, October is also recognized as National Cyber Security Awareness Month.

Online Harassment is Abuse

One misconception about technology-facilitated abuse is that online harassment is not “real” abuse, that the harassment or threats they receive online may not be credible or as scary. Yet, not only can online threats be extremely terrifying, but much of this abuse is often tied to offline behaviors, including stalking and assault. Victims’ experiences are often minimized as they are told to just “get offline,” “change their number,” or “log off.” When so many of us live and work online, disconnecting is not a sustainable solution. We instead focus on educating survivors on helpful safety planning strategies, including creating strong passwords, locking down their accounts, and documenting instances of abuse and harassment. However, for there to be true cyber security for victims of violence, we must work to stop the abusive and harmful behaviors and tactics that are often perpetrated online.

Technology-facilitated abuse is a serious issue that does not always remain online and could possibly escalate to other forms of violence. [1] The presence of technology in our lives today is also vastly different than 50 years ago. How we look for employment, stay connected to friends and family, or even use transportation all requires some interaction with technology. Studies show that 74 percent of adults who are online use a social networking site [2] and 81 percent of adult cell phone owners send and receive text messages. [3] Technology can give victims access to important resources and services and allow them to stay connected to their loved ones and other support systems. While safety planning provides important steps to give control back to survivors, creating safe online environments should also be a priority of advocates, service providers, technologists, and law enforcement.

In a survey conducted by NNEDV, 97 percent of domestic violence programs reported that abusers use technology to stalk, harass, and control victims. Nearly 80 percent of programs reported that abusers monitor survivors’ social media accounts and 86 percent reported that victims are harassed through social media. [4] One in four stalking victims report cyber stalking, which includes receiving unwanted emails, text messaging, and social media surveillance and/or harassment. [5] All of these behaviors - harassing, monitoring, and unwanted calls and text messages, creates a pattern of stalking and abusive tactics that aims to control the victim and to further instill fear. [6]

Technology is Not the Problem

It’s important to recognize that technology is not the enemy. Asking a survivor to log off, press delete, or not use social media, will not stop the abuse from happening. If we really want to increase cyber security, we must hold bad actors accountable for their actions. This means that we must address the sharing of nonconsensual personal images, take threats and harassment seriously, and call out rape culture that is tweeted, texted, or shared.

While there are some limitations to monitoring technology-facilitated abuse and proving who is behind abuse, [4] there has been tremendous effort in creating policies around privacy, victim confidentiality, and technology safety.

NNEDV’s Safety Net project is dedicated to looking at the intersection of technology and intimate partner violence, and addresses how technology impacts the safety, privacy, accessibility, and civil rights of victims. In addition to training, education and advocacy, the Safety Net project offers a host of resources and tip sheets for survivors and agencies working with survivors.

Get Involved

  • Visit to learn more about technology, privacy, and safety as it relates to survivors of abuse and the programs that serve them.
  • This month, we are challenging widely-held perceptions about domestic violence using the hashtag #31n31 – and this week we are focusing on technology safety-related misconceptions. (See the entire campaign on Pinterest.)
  • Learn more about Cyber Security Awareness month and other ways you can be involved at Stay Safe Online.

[1] Matthew J. Breiding et al., (2014). Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization – National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 63(8).
[2] Social Media Use Over Time: Pew Research Center
[3] Cell Phone Activities: Pew Research Center
[4] A Glimpse From the Field: How Abusers Are Misusing Technology (2014)
[5] Katrina Baum et al., (2009) “Stalking Victimization in the United States,” (Washington, DC:BJS, 2009)
[6] Fraser, C., Olsen, E., Lee, K., Southworth, C., & Tucker, S. (2010). The new age of stalking: Technological implications for stalking. Juvenile & Family Court Journal, 61(4), 39-55. 

Voting Safely

With the presidential election looming just around the corner, there seems to be reminders everywhere to “make sure you’re registered to vote” – in various news outlets, in social media, and even on signs in coffee shops. What you don’t hear that much about are the potential privacy risks associated with being registered to vote. We believe that the election process is a fundamental right that everyone should have access to; and we also believe that people need to make informed choices to balance their privacy and safety.

Unfortunately, registering to vote can raise privacy and safety risks for some survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or trafficking. For many, privacy and safety are intricately connected. Every state treats their voter information differently; however, the personal information of registered voters is often accessible in a number of ways. For example, many states allow people to check their voter status online, which can display their current home address. A list of state-specific links to check your voter status can be accessed here. Survivors who are registered can check this not just to ensure they are registered correctly, but to also see what someone else could learn about them if they know some of their basic information already. Please note: you don’t need to fill out any information on this site – just scroll past that section and you’ll see the list of states and where you can check your voter status.

Other states allow candidates for public office, researchers, or other groups to purchase voter records with very little regulation on what information may be included. Some states have Address Confidentiality Programs (ACPs) for survivors of violence that include protections to voter registration information; however, these programs are not a solution for everyone. Some ACPs are not able to protect voter record information and many have strict eligibility requirements.

This complex web of privacy risks and protections makes navigating the voter registration process a challenge for those who are concerned about their personal privacy for safety reasons. Survivors should understand how their personal information is handled when they register to vote and how it could be accessed by others, so they can assess their risk and make an informed decision. Additionally, we need to work to create more privacy protection options so that everyone who wants to vote can do so safely.

NNEDV just created a new resource, Voter Registration & Privacy which dives into these issues even more. Check that out, learn more about how your personal information can be accessible, and, if it’s safe for you to do so, get out and vote this November! 

Need to Call 911? There’s an App For That!

In the past year, the app market has been flooded with a plethora of 911 alternative or enhancement apps. Some of the apps promise that they will connect you to 911 faster and more accurately. Other apps say they will connect you to 911 and provide emergency dispatchers with personal information about you, so you don’t have to. One app promises to collect evidence by recording the crime being perpetrated against you and connecting you to a “safety officer.” (Note: As far as we could tell from the app or its website, the safety officer has no connections to a legitimate law enforcement agency.)

Many of these app developers are asking domestic violence and sexual violence programs to partner with them and are encouraging programs to have survivors download the app.  While we’ll have reviews of some of these apps available soon in our App Safety Center, here are some things to think about when considering whether these apps are right for you.

What These Apps Are Trying To Fix

Currently, the emergency 911 system in the United States is complex. How your call gets routed to 911 depends on whether you’re calling from a landline or a cellphone. Generally, a landline number is connected to the house that number is registered, making it fairly easy for emergency responders to locate you. Calls from cellphones don’t have a set location. Instead, the 911 system uses the cell towers your phone is connecting from to identify your location. Your location can be fairly accurate or not very accurate at all, depending on how far you are from cell towers or how well your phone is communicating with the towers. This is especially problematic for callers from rural areas.

Another problem with the current 911 system is that if someone can’t speak, she or he can't explain what is happening when calling 911, a system that generally requires the caller to explain to the emergency dispatcher what is going on. Some of the apps try to overcome these limitations.

Some Serious Concerns

Despite how helpful these apps might seem, there are some serious issues to consider before you decide if it is the right app for you.

How Connected Are They to the Real 911 System?

These apps are not part of the traditional 911 system. They are a third party that promises to connect you to 911. When you use the app, it connects to you a call center, where an operator asks you questions or interacts with you via the app. After that, it routes you to the nearest 911 dispatch center where you (or the app call center) speak to an actual emergency dispatcher, who then has the authority to send emergency responders. If you were unable to speak or communicate or if you hung up, the app service may call you back and, depending on their policy, may inform your local 911 emergency dispatch center that you called. However that is not very different from how 911 currently works.

When in an emergency, there should be as few delays as possible between your call and the emergency responder. It is really important to consider all your options in contacting 911 so that you get the quickest and most efficient response.

Do They Really Work?

These apps are very new. They have not been tested to see how many times they are successful in connecting callers to emergency dispatch centers compared to their rates of failure. If you live in an area where, after calling 911, emergency responders were unable to locate you or unable to communicate with you, then these apps might be an option. However, if calling 911 currently works just fine for you, then consider if you need another app that does what you can currently do by dialing 911 from your phone.

If you do choose to use one of these apps, test it. Make sure that it works the way you want it to. Don’t wait until you’re in an emergency to realize that it doesn’t work. In our tests of some of these apps, we found that when we used the texting option, although we received messages from the app saying “help is on the way” and that 911 would be contacting us soon, no calls or assistance came. We suspected that this might be the case, since most 911 call centers are not equipped to respond to text messages so we knew that this was unlikely to work.

But Don’t These Apps Have More Features than the Current 911 System?

Some of these apps have additional features that you may find useful and helpful to you. If you test it, and it works the way it should, and you want an app that offers these features, then go ahead and use it. However, there are a few things to consider about some of these features.

A lot of these apps promise to determine your location better and more accurately than the current 911 system. While this may be true in some circumstances, it may not be true a hundred percent of the time. Your cellphone location is accessible in a variety of ways. If your phone is dead or you are in an area with very poor or no signal, there is no guarantee that these apps will do a better job at locating you.

One of the selling points for some of the apps is that if you share personal information about yourself (physical identifiers, medical conditions, family members, number of pets, etc.), they will provide that information to emergency dispatchers, making it easier for emergency responders to know what to do. Keep in mind, however, that emergency dispatchers and emergency responders are trained to respond to emergencies with as little or as much information as they are given. It really depends on the emergency you are in whether this additional information would be truly helpful. Also keep in mind of what this third party does with the personal information you share. Read their privacy policy and know how else they share or sell your personal information. They should also have robust security to protect your data and inform you if they have a data breach.

A final concern is how “evidence” from these apps (which can be in the form of recorded audio or video) will hold up in court. Generally, 911 calls are used as evidence in criminal cases, but if you are using an app where your first emergency contact was with a third-party company, how that interaction will submitted in court is unknown. Talk to local authorities about how this type of evidence could be used. Ask the app service how accessible the “evidence” will be. Some companies may release the evidence only with consent from you, and some companies may release it to anyone with a proper legal order, which might include the abusive person and his or her attorney.

Should I Download a 911 Alternative or Enhancement App?

Many of these apps are being marketed specifically to domestic violence and sexual assault victims because they know that survivors’ ability to connect with 911 is critical. If you want the ability to make a silent call to 911, or want a service that will communicate to someone your location, name, and any other personal information you choose to share, one of these apps may give you peace of mind. However, don’t trust your safety to an app without learning all that you can about it and testing it.

Additional points to keep in mind:

  • It might be faster to call 911 from your phone. Most smartphones have an emergency feature that allows you to call 911 with a swipe and a tap, even if your phone is locked. If the app requires you to unlock your phone, find the app, open it, and then do whatever is needed to send the emergency call (tapping a button 3 times, or push a button and then confirm or cancel the call 3-5 seconds later), it might be faster to just dial 9-1-1 during a serious emergency.
  • These apps will not prevent crimes from happening. Any app that claims or implies that is lying. (One app, for example, claims that using their app is “like having an officer in your back pocket.”)
  • Assess whether you have a situation in which using these apps will enhance your experience when calling 911. For example, you may live in an area where emergency responder has had a difficult time locating where you are, but after testing one of these apps, it does a better job.
  • If the app contacts other people (in addition to emergency dispatch centers) and shares with them that you are in an emergency, talk to the people you chose for the app service to contact and let them know that they may be contacted and what they should do.
  • Have a backup plan and trust your instincts. Don’t rely entirely on these apps. If you are in an emergency and something doesn’t feel right, trust your instinct and do what is right for you.

Safety & Privacy on Twitter: A Guide for Survivors of Harassment and Abuse

Twitter Privacy & Safety Guide Cover Image

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and Twitter are excited to announce a new resource, Safety & Privacy on Twitter: A Guide for Victims of Harassment and Abuse. This guide provides specific tips and guidance for Twitter users on increasing their privacy and responding to other users who misuse the platform.

Both NNEDV and Twitter firmly believe that people should feel safe in all spaces, including online. Unfortunately, many people misuse online platforms, such as Twitter, as a tool to harass, abuse, and stalk. This occurs in domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking cases, as well as instances of mob harassment specifically targeting a person. NNEDV consistently advocates and works to help ensure that survivors can actively participate in online spaces without being victimized. As part of this work, NNEDV sits on Twitter’s Safety Council to share the experiences and challenges of survivors in this space and provide suggestions for addressing their needs.

This new guide walks through a number of safety tips to help users control their privacy and explains several features to ensure that users are making informed decisions on how they use Twitter. These include a detailed look at how you choose who can see your Tweets, how you manage your publicly available information, and how you control the sharing of your location. Many users are not familiar with some features that can be extremely helpful to victims of harassment, abuse, or stalking – such as the ability to remove location information from all past Tweets at once.

Understanding how to respond to harassment and abuse is just as important as controlling your own account and privacy. This guide also focuses on how Twitter defines harassment and what constitutes a violation of their Community Standards. The steps to block, mute, or report another user are explained, as well as additional considerations for survivors who many want to contact law enforcement or legal assistance.

Many victims of harassment and abuse are told to go offline or avoid certain spaces, although this is not a n acceptable solution. Getting off social media doesn’t guarantee any level of safety or privacy and it doesn’t hold those perpetrating abuse and harassment accountable. That is not the experience anyone should have online. Survivors should be able to use social media and online spaces while also maintaining control over their personal information and feeling safe. Being informed about how to best use the spaces they are in helps to accomplish this. Survivors should and must be safe at home, safe at the office, safe on the street, and safe online.

Check out the new guide here

New Resource: Tech Safety App

We’re thrilled to announce the release of our Tech Safety App! The Tech Safety App is an educational mobile app that helps users identify how abusers can harass them by misusing technology and learn what steps they can take to enhance their technology safety and privacy.

This app takes advantage of the NNEDV Safety Net project’s more than 15 years of working on the intersection of technology abuse and violence against women, and who have provided expert advice, trainings, and consultation on this issue to thousands of survivors of abuse, victim service providers, and technology companies. This app is another way to get information into the hands of survivors.

The Tech Safety App walks users through understanding how a particular technology could be misused, what they can do about it, and offers safety tips on how to increase their safety and privacy. The app also includes a wide range of resources, including those on this site, the legal hotline, and other hotlines.

The Tech Safety App will be launched at a reception on Monday, July 25, 2016 from 5:00 pm – 7:30 pm at the Hilton Financial District during NNEDV Safety Net’s 4th Annual Technology Summit. At this Summit, nearly 250 victim advocates, attorneys, law enforcement professionals, victim service providers from across the United States and around the world will attend to learn about how technology is misused to harass and how providers can address these crimes.

Download the app today, and let us know what you think!

Thinking Critically About Domestic Violence Offender Registries

Every year, somewhere in the country there is a proposal for a Domestic Violence Offender Registry. These proposals would create a publicly accessible database to list individuals who have been convicted of violent domestic violence crimes. The goal is for the registry to be a tool for prevention and accountability.

We don’t see that potential in a registry, however. What we do see are a list of unintended and harmful consequences for victims and their children. The following is a brief description of those concerns:

  • False Sense of Security: In actual implementation of a registry, only a very small percentage of abusers would ever be listed, meaning that the database would significantly underrepresent the number of individuals who are abusive and could potentially pose a threat to others. Domestic violence is a seriously underreported crime and few abusers ever enter the criminal justice system in the first place. Of those who are arrested, many are not convicted. Of those convicted, many plea down or are initially only facing a charge that would not require their listing in the registry. This is because most proposals plan to only include offenders convicted of violent felonies; and many proposals suggest including those convicted of three or more felonies related to domestic violence.
  • Privacy Concerns:  Due to the nature of intimate relationships in domestic violence cases, it is often impossible to publicly identify the offender without identifying the victim and their children. In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 60% of victims reported that they had not contacted police due to concerns for their privacy. Unfortunately, being identified as a victim can come with some social stigmas and can impact employment or housing options.
  • Barrier to Contacting 911: In addition to being concerned for their own privacy, many victims do not want a public wall of shame as an accountability option. They want the abuse to stop, but they may not want the abuser to be humiliated or for their family to feel exposed. They may also be concerned with an increase in safety risks if the abuser losing their job or is shamed due to the registry.
  • Safety Concerns: The registry idea is premised on the assumption that if someone found their intimate partner or love interest in the database, they can end the relationship and prevent themselves from being a victim. However, the most dangerous time for women and their children is when they attempt to leave or have left an abusive partner. The risk of assault, stalking, and homicide all increase at this time and it’s critical that individuals have the support and resources they need to separate from a partner safely.
  • Unnecessary Use of Funds:  Most states already make criminal records publicly available. Considering the limited scope of the proposals and who would be included, most of those records are already accessible.
  • Inclusion of Victim’s Names: Unfortunately, victims are sometimes arrested after they call for help. This may be because they fought back in self-defense or because both parties were arrested.  Regardless, including victims’ names in a registry discourages them from calling for help, has many harmful consequences, and undermines the fundamental purpose of the database.
  • Tool for Victim-Blaming: Domestic violence is an issue that is consistently minimized and misunderstood. Our societal responses continually look to victims to explain the behavior of the abuser, rather than truly trying to hold the offender accountable. Is it inevitable that with the existence of a registry, there will be questions posed to victims: Why didn’t you check the registry? Why didn’t you leave? Abusers tell convincing stories to rationalize, minimize, or excuse their prior behavior; and their charming personalities convince not just their intimate partners, but everyone around them. If we stop believing the myths that it’s extremely easy to accuse someone of a domestic violence crime they didn’t commit and that abusive behavior can be caused by alcoholism, we may start to believe victims and then look to the abuser for true accountability. Until we do that, a registry will only add to the current victim-blaming culture.

Arguments for a registry can be compelling and seemingly logical. They can also be deeply emotional when questioning whether its existence could have prevented a tragic homicide. Overall, the limitations of any registry to actually include every individual who has been violently abusive means there is a significant chance that it would not have been preventative and that it still will not be in the future. We do need preventative measures to address domestic violence, but they need to truly address the root causes of domestic violence, provide support to victims, and encourage people to contact help when they need it. 

Smartphone Encryption: Protecting Victim Privacy While Holding Offenders Accountable

The last few months have seen heated debates between law enforcement and technology companies over the issue of smartphone encryption. The government has argued that encrypted devices and new technologies make it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate crimes while technology companies claimed that weakening encryption weakens security for everyone. Currently, Congress is drafting a bill that would require technology companies to make encrypted data readable, and several state legislatures have introduced legislation to block the sale of encrypted smartphones

At the core of the encryption debate is the concept of privacy and technology security. Technology nowadays – in particular the smartphone – collect and store an unprecedented amount of private information, including personal health data, access to online accounts (such as social media and email), videos and pictures, and so much more. Some of this information can be especially private and something a user may not want others – a friend or family member, an abusive partner, or an employer – to know about. For those individuals, the security on their smartphone can enhance or strip away that privacy.

Through the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, we have been addressing the intersection of technology and violence against women for over 15 years, and have trained more than 80,000 victim advocates, police officers, technologists, and other practitioners. In looking at how technology can be misused to facilitate stalking and harassment and how survivors can use their technology to attain safety, privacy is a recurring and fundamental component.

For victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, privacy and data security are integrally connected to their safety. A survivor’s smartphone is their lifeline; yet their smartphone can also be incredibly vulnerable to misuse by an abuser. A survivor’s smartphone is often one of the first things an abuser will target simply because of the amount of information on there. If they can compromise the victim’s smartphone, they have access to all phone calls, messages, social media, email, location information, and much more. For these reasons, smartphone security and encryption is essential to safeguarding the privacy of victims’ personal information.

The other side of the encryption debate is the ability for law enforcement to hold offenders accountable, which is something we also strongly support. When abusers misuse technology to threaten and terrorize, investigators can trace the digital trail to discover and prove who committed the crime. An encrypted smartphone makes it more difficult for law enforcement to access information on that phone if the owner is unwilling or unable to unlock it.

While law enforcement should not be impeded in their ability to investigate a crime, it’s important to recognize that smartphone encryption does not prevent law enforcement from doing an investigation of technology-facilitated domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. In these types of crimes, the goal of the perpetrator is to wield power and control over the victim by controlling the victim’s technology, harassing the victim through messages or phone calls, monitoring their activity, or disseminating harmful and devastating rumors about the victim. It is often an interaction between the victim and perpetrator through a third party, and digital evidence or proof of this harassment and abuse could exist elsewhere: on the victim’s own devices or an online platform (Facebook, email, etc.).

There may be circumstances in which evidence only exists on the perpetrator’s device. This could be the case in a sexual assault, for example, in which the perpetrator recorded or took videos of the assault on his/her device and has not yet shared them or posted them publicly. In situations such as this, unless the videos or photographs were uploaded online or backed up, the evidence may not be anywhere but on the perpetrator’s smartphone.

In most cases, however, it is possible for law enforcement to successfully investigate and build a domestic violence and sexual assault case without needing the perpetrator’s smartphone. For example, evidence of harassment via emails, texts, or social media will also exist on other technology platforms. If the abuser purchased monitoring software or is tracking the victim through a paid service, there might be financial records. In some cases, the survivor may have access to some of the evidence that might be needed. While survivors should never be in the position of having to investigate their own crimes, they are often in the best position to know what’s happening, and they should be involved and part of the process.

Balancing Victim Privacy and Offender Accountability

Ultimately, for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, the smartphone encryption issue comes down to balancing victim privacy and offender accountability. Both are equally important but neither should be compromised for the other. Victim privacy is fundamental to victim safety, and the technologies survivors use should have the most security and encryption possible.

It’s also important to recognize that weakening smartphone encryption to allow law enforcement access means weakened encryption—period. If an abuser is technologically savvy or is in law enforcement, their victim may have less privacy and security on their smartphones. There is no professional immunity to those who commit violence against women, and perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence work in all fields, including technology companies and law enforcement agencies.

We believe it is possible for law enforcement to investigate technology-facilitated domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking crimes, without compromising victim privacy through weakened smartphone encryption. Law enforcement, federal funders, technology companies, and the victim advocate community need to come together to figure out how to support survivors and help them be safe while also holding offenders accountable.

Instead of finding ways to get around smartphone encryption, law enforcement agencies deserve and need far more resources to investigate crimes facilitated through technology. Law enforcement should be given more information and tools so they not only know how technology is misused to facilitate crime, but all the different places where the evidence could exist, and the proper process and method on gathering this evidence. A good, thorough investigation of technology-facilitated domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking goes beyond examining a perpetrator’s encrypted smartphone.

At our annual Technology Summit, we ensure that there are sessions geared specifically for law enforcement professionals, so they can take this knowledge back to their communities. We’ve worked with other national organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, to develop articles to share this knowledge with law enforcement. Despite 15 years of addressing this issue, however, we still hear from survivors and their advocates that thorough investigation of technology-facilitated crimes is not happening consistently across the country. Rather than proposing legislation requiring access to encrypted data on a smartphone or banning encrypted smartphones, we encourage legislators and advocacy groups to look at what is actually needed to fully investigate these crimes and to truly address what law enforcement can do to hold offenders accountable.

New & Updated Resources on Facebook Privacy & Safety

We recently had the exciting opportunity to collaborate with Facebook on their international roundtables on Women’s Online Safety and were able to participate in three of these events in Washington, DC, Hyderabad, India, and New York City. The roundtables featured leading voices from many of the nation’s gender based violence (GBV) organizations as well as government representatives from various countries.

The roundtables were devised to create space for GBV organizations to contribute to the broader conversation on how Facebook in particular can engage the voices of women and create a safer environment for women to use the platform without fear of harassment and threats.  The goals of the roundtables were:

  1. To share existing Facebook tools women can use to help with privacy and safety.
  2. To share innovations Facebook is currently working on to improve the user experience. 
  3. To hear concerns from the field on what users are experiencing. 
  4. To create a network for GBV organizations to foster continuous conversations and provide a support structure for women users. 

The roundtables included conversations around Facebook’s Real Name Policy. Facebook has strongly backed their long-standing policy for users to be authentically identified by their real names. This policy also minimizes the ability for abusers and perpetrators to hide behind fake accounts and increases the likelihood that abusers misusing the platform to harass, threaten, or stalk a person can be held accountable. The policy has received some push-back, however, and Facebook addressed the various steps they have taken to allow some flexibility for individuals who are going by a different name in their everyday lives than their legal name.

All of the meetings discussed counter speech, which is used to combat negative comments posted on an account. By using counter speech, users can ask their audiences to post positive comments and help manage some of the negative, threatening, and harassing comments they are receiving.

During the roundtables, Facebook and Safety Net introduced the new Guide to Staying Safe on Facebook. This guide is a condensed version of the Privacy & Safety on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse, providing short and concise tips on privacy and safety settings. Both resources can be found in our Privacy & Safety on Facebook page of the blog.

The roundtables were an incredible success. We appreciate the opportunity Facebook provided for global GBV organizations to convene and share their concerns. We will continue to foster collaborations between technology companies, government organizations, and non-profits to help eradicate violence against women in all forms, including in online spaces. To learn more about the roundtables and all of the great topics discussed, visit #HerVoice. Also, check out our video series on Facebook Privacy, Security and Safety!