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 Hotbot.com. 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: http://www.vaw.umn.edu/FinalDocuments/CommissionedDocs/online_liability.asp
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:
2001). Survivors of intimate violence seek help online: Implications
of responding to increasing requests: http://www.vaw.umn.edu/FinalDocuments/10vawpaper.asp
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
SOME CASE STUDIES
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 http://www.freep.com/money/tech/spy6_20010906.htm
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 http://www.phillyburbs.com/couriertimes/news/news%5Farchive/0714murder.htm
ACCESS TO INFORMATION
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: http://www.glr.com/stalk.html
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: http://www.cfp2002.com/proceedings/proceedings/givens.pdf
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: http://www.vawnet.org/VNL/help/911.html?where=help
American Bar Association's information on How an Abuser
can Discover Your Internet Activities http://www.abanet.org/domviol/internet.html
Alabama / ACADV's tips about web browsers and cookies. http://www.acadv.org/warning.html
Massachusetts' Jane Doe Inc's Take Steps to Safety http://www.janedoe.org/takesteps/safety_computer.htm
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
CINDY SOUTHWORTH'S BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION
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
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: Safety@EscapeAbuse.org