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Violence Against Women on the Internet

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The Internet as a Site of Resistance
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NOTE: Modules will launch by 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time on the date listed.


Safety on the Internet
This module was composed by Cindy Southworth
(with Diane Rosenfeld, Lynn Rosenthal, & Amanda Moger)

A New England woman planned to escape her violent husband. She secretly found a new home for herself and her 2 daughters and she sent an email to a friend asking for help moving. She thought she had deleted the email, though it sat in her email program's "deleted mail folder". Her husband found the email, learned that she was planning to flee for safety, and he killed her. ____________________________________________________________________________

In the previous modules, we looked at ways the Internet perpetuates violence against women, as well as ways that the Internet can be used to fight violence against women. In this module, we consider the question of safety planning for victims using the Internet. This question has the potential to either harm or help victims depending on how well informed the advocates advising the victim are. The purpose of this Module is to educate the participants on these critical, and non-obvious issues surrounding safety planning for victims.

Our guest lecturer this week is Cindy Southworth. We are working together to launch a national project on these issues.

Therefore, your comments this week are especially important, as we will consider them in the formation of the new project.


Increased access is making technology an important resource for victims of domestic violence. However, if not understood and used strategically, technology may increase their danger. Most victims of abuse do not know how to safely navigate technology resources to access help without increasing their risk of further abuse.

Many survivors of abuse report using a wide array of technology resources to help them have a greater sense of security, increase supports, and decrease isolation. They are reaching out over email to ask family for help in leaving an abusive partner, searching for shelters and new housing online, and researching restraining order options on the Internet. However, they are not aware of risks or safety precautions to reduce their "footprints".

• After one survivor was separated from her abuser, she found a hidden web camera that explained how the batterer monitored her conversations and activities - and frequently called and demanded to know why she was speaking to her family or friends. He also knew when she was alone and most vulnerable to an attack.

• Advocates from around the country report a marked increase in cyberstalking of survivors seeking protection orders. Many communities are creating cybercrime police units to assist victims.

• Batterers are assaulting victims and forcing them to disclose their email passwords so the abuser can monitor all electronic mail for any signs that she may try to escape the abuser.

• A New Jersey woman, Stephany Willman began receiving offers for sex from strangers in the mail and eventually found out that her ex-boyfriend had posted nude photos of her and her address to a sexually explicit newsgroup.

The increased risk when a victim attempts to leave an abusive partner is frequently termed "separation violence". One strategy survivors use to minimize separation violence is to try to keep the abusive partner from discovering her plan to leave. If a batterer learns of an escape plan, the abuser may severely injure the victim, abduct her children or even kill her.

There has been explosive growth in domestic violence organizations creating web presences. To get one snapshot of the increase of domestic violence organizations on the web, Jerry Finn from the University of New Hampshire looked at the number of websites indexed as "domestic violence" by In July 1998, Finn found 15,215 domestic violence sites indexed with Hotbot and in March 2001: 43,100, almost three times as many. Finn also surveyed domestic violence organizations about their websites and found that 42% had between 100 and 1000 "hits" per week while 10% of organizations received over 10,000 hits per week. One of Finn's articles, Domestic Violence Organizations Online: Risks, Ethical Dilemmas, and Liability Issues, is posted at:

Survivors of abuse are accessing the Internet to request help and resources. In one brief study looking at emails sent between October 1999 and September 2000, victims of abuse sent 153 unsolicited email requests to the Violence Against Women Online Resources website: (Kranz, 2001). Survivors of intimate violence seek help online: Implications of responding to increasing requests:
Many local, state, and national domestic violence websites have email links with limited or no warnings. When a battered woman clicks an email link, a window may "magically" appear (from her default email program). Once she types her message and clicks "send", it disappears. Her outgoing email may remain in her "Sent Items" for her abuser to see and any reply from the domestic violence organization might be read or intercepted by the batterer, escalating her risk exponentially.


SpyWare Eavesdropping Case:
In Michigan an abuser was charged with installing spy software on the computer of his estranged wife. He installed a commercially available hacking program on the computer at her separate residence, allowing him access to all of the keystroking activity of her computer, including all emails sent and received, all web surfing, and any Internet communications. He was charged with four felony counts related to using a computer to eavesdrop. The Assistant Attorney General from the Computer Crimes Unit who prosecuted the case explained that he pled guilty to eavesdropping and using a computer to commit a crime. He received two years probation.

Belleville man accused of electronic voyeurism, Detroit Free Press September 6, 2001

Man Accused of Installing Spy Software, Jefferson City News Tribune (AP), September 6, 2001.

Intercepted Email as a Catalyst for Homicide

Valarie Sparacio of Bucks County, PA was killed by her husband when he reportedly intercepted an email and learned she planned to leave him. Joseph Sparacio, a computer programmer, killed his wife the day before her appointment to apply for a protection order. When Valarie's father showed up with a moving van to help his daughter leave, Valarie had been dead for two days from a brutal stabbing and her husband was attempting to commit suicide. Joseph later killed himself in jail.

Husband charged with murdering wife, Bucks County Courier Times, July 14, 2001


As more records become available by a simple Internet search, victims of abuse are at greater risk. If is becoming very difficult to relocate to a new community and hide from a batterer. Land records are available online in many communities with maps to the house. Online "white pages" allow you to search for phone numbers and often provide driving directions to the house. A "Stalker's Home Page" shows how much information is available on the Internet:

Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse outlines some privacy concerns about open records in her article written for a presentation at the 2002 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference. Public Records on the Internet: The Privacy Dilemma:


Many domestic violence websites are developing their own Interent Warnings or linking to the American Bar Association's site. The existing warnings neglect to fully discuss "SpyWare" and potentially give the impression that "merely" deleting history and cache will prevent an abuser from discovering a victim's online activities. However, Australia's City of Fremantle has one of the best sites I have seen: Domestic Violence: Hiding Your Tracks On-line including step-by-step instructions and a glossary of terms:

Cynthia Fraser at the National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women (VAWnet) has compiled a list of some of the Internet warnings currently available:

• American Bar Association's information on How an Abuser can Discover Your Internet Activities
• Alabama / ACADV's tips about web browsers and cookies.
• Massachusetts' Jane Doe Inc's Take Steps to Safety

There is an inherent conundrum in warning victims about an abuser's ability to track their online activities and providing explicit instructions on how to reduce their electronic "footprints" without providing a detailed checklist that batterers can misuse. The National Safe and Strategic Technology Project (see below) is currently planning to create a national public education campaign with television and radio spots giving generic information about the risks of using technology for victims and resources to contact. The Project is also considering putting detailed educational brochures in women's rest rooms and providing online tutorials through local shelter programs. After victims are given a chance to learn about technology risks while attempting to minimize the chances of batterers learning additional ways to stalk and control, the Project will consider opening up all their educational information on the Internet. The project hopes to engage you in discussion about how to most safely educate victims.


1. What additional Internet safety risks can you imagine or know of that impact survivors of Violence Against Women?

2. Do you have any stories of technology being used to harm victims?

3. Do you have any stories of technology being used creatively by victims to increase their safety?

4. Where can we provide information to victims on how to more safely use technology while minimizing the risk of abusers learning additional ways to stalk and harass from the educational materials?

Go to the Discussion Board



I have been working to end Violence Against Women for the past 10 years at local, state, and national organizations -- and focusing on Domestic Violence Technology Projects for the past 4 years. I am advocate by passion, social worker by training, and techie by birth. I grew up in a "geek" house where I stole RAM from my baby brother while I was in graduate school (he was 14 - I needed it more than him), Internet security was a common dinner table conversation, and we all got domain names for Christmas.

Several years ago I saw an emerging need to provide education to victims and advocates on the safe and strategic use of technology. Two amazing colleagues: Dawn Marron and Nikki Ker, and I developed a curriculum to present at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) Conference in July 2000. Advocates from around the country participated in a discussion of email, computer footprints, cyberstalking, hacking, databases, and other technology issues for survivors. Most importantly, they shared stories of women who were currently being further harmed by technology and others who were using technology to help them survive the abuse. As in many grassroots initiatives, the stories grew and the need for a national project emerged.

I am working with the National Network to End Domestic Violence Fund (NNEDV) to launch a National Safe and Strategic Technology Project. We are excited to be partnering with Diane Rosenfeld and the Berkman Center at Harvard, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and ASHA Inc (a Washington, DC organization that assists South Asian survivors of Domestic Violence).

This online Safety Module is an opportunity for activists from around the globe to share ideas and stories about Internet safety -- and help shape the scope of our emerging national technology project. I feel privileged to have this discussion with you. Please add your voice to the discussion board and/or contact me at:



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