Victims of domestic violence challenged by abusers using technology

When Cox, a cybersecurity expert, first tried to describe the technology challenges of people stuck in violent domestic situations, he ran into a problem. People in his profession couldn’t imagine a victim of keyloggers or spyware — common malicious software associated with cybercriminals — living with the perpetrator 24/7, and hadn’t thought about how to design for that scenario.

But the problem is common among domestic violence victims, Cox said. It’s why he and around 30 experts in different security disciplines worked to establish Operation Safe Escape in 2014.

The organization helps create solutions for victims who often have very little personal privacy, including over their technology and devices. They also help advise shelters on how to help their clients leave their abusers, one of the most dangerous periods for a domestic violence victim.

“Many people, when they find out a friend or family member is in a situation like this, will tell them to call a local shelter or domestic violence hotline. But for many of these victims, their channels of communication are being tracked, their cell phones are being checked, their computers are being checked, they don’t have a lot of freedom of movement,” said Cox.

“When it really becomes dangerous is if the individual is gaining their own sense of control and getting ready to leave, that means the abuser is losing their control. And they will do anything to get it back.”

This is what Amy experienced, he said. After each attempt to leave, her husband shut down her access to the outside world further.

Security professionals, typically trained in dealing with corporate crises or public disasters, already know the importance of establishing clear channels of communication. But when the crisis is happening in the home, securing the channel itself is safe becomes a priority and a new challenge, Cox said.

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