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Private, Protected, Secure: Reclaiming technology after digital domestic abuse

White woman types on white keyboard with a white mouse, yellow watch, and white smartphone, scattered across a desk, to the right of her.
Technology can not only be used to search the web or browse social media, but it can be a tool that abusers use to exercise power and control in their relationships.

Host Anita Rao talks to survivors and experts about how technology is enabling domestic abuse — and what cybersecurity experts, tech companies and advocates are doing about it.⁠

Flooding an email inbox with hundreds of messages, manipulating smart home devices, and hacking a cell phone with stalkerware are all methods of digital domestic abuse. While this misuse of technology predates the pandemic, the isolation, financial instability and fear of the past year and a half heightened risks for victims. As abusers find ways to exercise power and control through technology, advocates and experts are looking closely at ways to protect the most vulnerable.

Host Anita Rao discusses digital domestic abuse and ways survivors can protect their tech with Kathryn Kosmides, a multi-time gender-based violence survivor and founder and CEO of Garbo.io, a background check nonprofit set to launch later this year, and with Audace Garnett, a technology safety specialist with Safety Net at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Also joining the conversation is Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a founding partner of the Coalition Against Stalkerware.

If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. It is free and confidential 24 hours a day.

It does not exist in a vacuum. Emotional abuse is a sign of future abuse to come.
Kathryn Kosmides

Ashley on what her digital abuse experience was like: 

“I would do everything I can and it still kept happening. I found a listening device under my bed and called the police department — and that was a situation within itself. The female officer told me: Well, there’s not a lot we can do with this. Try to get him to hit you, and then we can do more. I actually had a woman say to me: Who cares if they can see what you’re doing online? Is there anything bad that you’re doing? And, it’s just — everyone expects a reasonable amount of privacy.”

Kathryn Kosmides on the relationship between emotional abuse and violence: 

“It does not exist in a vacuum. Emotional abuse is a sign of future abuse to come. Demanding passwords or my location — I would not be in the exact location that I told him I would be in, which would then trigger him to call me, scream at me and make me cry and embarrass me in front of whoever I was with. These are all very interconnected. Then he would get angry that I wasn’t where I said I would be, and that would escalate to physical violence. So, it’s all very intertwined.”

Audace Garnett on ways survivors of abuse can find support: 

“First thing is reaching out for support. That is really important, so any survivor that’s having this experience — I think that it’s important that they reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline where they could be connected to an advocate that can walk them through the steps that they need. Every survivor situation is different. So, the avenue of taking legal recourse may not be something that everyone wants to take. It may not be the safest option for them. So, it’s really important to sit with the survivor first, and to ask them: what is it that they want? Do they want the abuse to stop? Do they want to take civil legal action? Do they want to see if this person can be charged criminally in this situation?”

Eva Galperin on how technology can be used to stop abuse: 

“Every intimate partner abuse situation is different, and the technology that would help them is different. Often, the technology that would be used against them is often different, so I think that there’s really no one solution. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has an app, which helps people to store evidence. So, if you are being harassed, or you’re being sent abusive emails, it’s really common for the survivors of abuse to want to get rid of that as quickly as possible. Sometimes they will delete it, and then later decide that would have been really useful as evidence, whether to show their friends or colleagues or in a court of law or bring to law enforcement. It is good to have options, and that’s one of the areas in which apps like that are really useful.”

Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.
Josie Taris left her home in Fayetteville in 2014 to study journalism at Northwestern University. There, she took a class called Journalism of Empathy and found her passion in audio storytelling. She hopes every story she produces challenges the audience's preconceptions of the world. After spending the summer of 2018 working in communications for a Chicago nonprofit, she decided to come home to work for the station she grew up listening to. When she's not working, Josie is likely rooting for the Chicago Cubs or petting every dog she passes on the street.