26 June 2017

Seattle Working Group Targets the Misuse of Technology for Harassment and Abuse

By Emily F. Keller

Communications technologies and location-tracking software provide vast opportunities for interpersonal networking, information sharing and the collection of granular data to inform policy and research. Yet these technologies also have a more sinister application as mechanisms for perpetuating physical and emotional abuse. The popularity of anonymity features, the impracticality of erasing one’s digital footprint, and the prevalence of web platforms to observe and connect with a victim without defying a “no-contact” order make these attacks particularly difficult to trace and stop.

A cross-sector group in Seattle has been working over the past year to develop shared knowledge and approaches for addressing the growing role that technology plays in abusive behaviors such as domestic violence, harassment and sexual assault. On May 23, they held a small group panel as a soft launch for the Technology-Enabled Coercive Control (TECC) Working Group. The event was held at Impact Hub Seattle and hosted by Candace Faber, Civic Technology Advocate for the City of Seattle, with refreshments from the Police Foundation.

TECC members include the University of Washington (UW) Tech Policy Lab, SafeCampus and Victim Advocacy Services; City of Seattle IT; the Seattle Police Department’s Victim Support Team; the Washington State Coalition to End Domestic Violence; the King County Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence; and the local nonprofit New Beginnings, which provides services to domestic violence survivors.

The event was introduced by Dana Lockhart of the Seattle Police Department’s Victim Support Team, who initiated the group’s formation, and by Lan Pham from the Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Speakers explained how communication and anonymity tools designed to protect privacy and streamline connectivity are misused for harassment and stalking.

  • Textfree and TextNow apps that provide free calling and texting using a random phone number from any WiFi device hide a caller’s identity.
  • The software Tor, which protects Internet users from surveillance, can mask a user’s IP address.
  • The FlexiSPY iPhone Tracker, which enables customers to encrypt and save another person’s messages, browsing history and GPS locations can be used to intercept calls, send SMS messages, or open a phone’s microphone or camera to take photos remotely.
  • Keystroke monitoring software such as Revealer Keylogger, which is used for IT and user testing purposes, can be installed on a victim’s device to steal their passwords and read their conversations.
  • Spoofing apps such as SpoofCard and Bluff My Call disguise a caller’s phone number and voice, record conversations and send outgoing calls directly to voicemail.

These services are beneficial for doctors responding to patients remotely while displaying their office phone number or parents observing a child or employee in a dangerous situation. However, when these tools are used for malicious purposes, proving the sender’s identity is a challenge even when a victim recognizes personal references in the content.

“Sometimes judges don’t understand the technology or the context of why it’s so offensive to a victim,” said Summer Rosa-Mullen from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office. Failure to intervene in electronic harassment can lead to escalating behaviors, such as an abuser going to a victim’s home.

Challenges for Law Enforcement

As technology-enabled abuse becomes more prevalent, law enforcement faces challenges in confronting the threat, explained Faber, an organizer of the TECC working group. For example, there are questions around how courts should accept and verify digital evidence, such as whether photos of a computer screen or screen shots are sufficient.

Detective Ginger Banyai-Riepl of the UW Police Department cited a case of an abuser using impersonation to solicit intimate photos, threatening to circulate them in an act of extortion, and then posting the photos to a dating website as the victim, which resulted in additional harassment. (A similar spoofing case in New York resulted in a lawsuit against the dating app Grindr). Indicative of the complexity of technologically enhanced crimes, the police initially mistook the victim for the suspect. The victim was then advised to quit Facebook and change his phone number, but this was insufficient in stopping the abuse. The TECC working group is seeking solutions that do not put the onus on the victim to withdraw from their digital life, which is often impractical and can cause isolation.

High tech skills are not required to perpetuate technology-enabled abuse. Attackers have used social media and networking lists (acquired through mutual contacts or impersonation) to create and distribute nonconsensual pornography and revenge porn to a victim’s friends, family or colleagues. The ease of viewing Facebook friend lists after phone numbers are exchanged exacerbates this threat. Angella D. Coker, Community Victim Liaison at the Washington State Department of Corrections, described a case in which low-tech tools without the veil of anonymity were used to harm a victim online. The abuser used Facebook to post a 911 transcript with quotes and songs from his former relationship with the victim, as well as contacting her family. This created a legal loophole, as it did not violate a no-contact order already in place.

Dana Cuomo, a victim advocate at UW, presented a research proposal for developing in-depth case studies of victims’ experiences and examining the resolutions provided. The proposal was created with researchers at the Tech Policy Lab, an interdisciplinary unit that provides educational research to improve technology policy. The project aims to offer educational information to law enforcement, judicial offices and human resources departments to improve their response and ability to act as an “on-ramp” in pursuing earlier remedies.

Victims of technology-enabled abuse can contact the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project, which provides pro bono representation globally.

Technology for Combating Abuse

UW Informatics students John Diego, Huy Nguyen, Christy Pham and Marika Rundle presented their capstone project, Bloom, which provides a confidential forum for survivors of sexual assault, human trafficking and domestic violence. Created in partnership with the local nonprofit API Chaya, Bloom allows users to generate and rearrange text and photos that share their stories to facilitate healing.

Designing safe spaces in virtual reality was the topic of a presentation by Renee Gittins, CEO and Creative Director at Stumbling Cat and a virtual reality advocate. Gittins discussed the importance of empowering users to avoid unwanted touch in programs where interactive experiences using realistic features in sound and sight can have deeply emotional consequences. She recommends creating personal moderation tools that can mute players who engage in harassment (or make them invisible), and bubbles that prevent unwanted contact with another player’s virtual body; as well as platform and community moderation to prevent and respond to abuse.

There is an emerging volunteer role for people with technical expertise who want to use their skills to support survivors. Nathan Florea, Senior Software Engineer at Valassis, discussed the burgeoning TechAdvocates program that aims to provide tech support to victims through partnerships with direct service organizations. Background checks and training for volunteers who lack social work experience will be required. Florea said legal advice is welcome for two remaining questions: “Could a tech advocate be subpoenaed?” and “How do you preserve evidence and not just delete it?”

Personal security apps such as Digital Witness facilitate quick outreach to pre-selected individuals and authorities in response to a threat, sending photos and GPS locations by clicking a “Help” button. Cuomo also posed the question: Could technology ease the burden on victims of repeatedly documenting technologically enabled abusive behavior?

For more information or to get involved in the TECC working group, visit seatecc.org.