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Domestic abuse is on the rise. IBM shows how design can help combat it

Technology is frequently used by abusers to control and coerce their victims. Here’s how designers can prevent harm.

Domestic abuse is on the rise. IBM shows how design can help combat it
[Source Image: DukeMargiris/Blendswap]

Domestic abusers use technology to harass and control their victims. In a recent report, IBM shows how design can help mitigate the problem.

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This is particularly salient right now because evidence suggests that domestic abuse is on the rise due to the lockdowns caused by the coronavirus. Sociologists say that domestic abuse tends to go up whenever families spend time together, including the Christmas holidays and summer vacations. The coronavirus has forced many families to spend months in close quarters with one another, which has coincided with a spike in calls to domestic abuse hotlines in some cities. In Chicago for instance, the police department says that calls related to domestic violence increased by 12% from the start of the year until mid-April compared to the same period in 2019. Some cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, have seen a drop in calls, but authorities believe that this might be because victims are in such close quarters with their abusers that they have not been able to call the police. Experts also point out that many victims of domestic abuse never report their abusers because they don’t have independent access to money, or don’t want to leave their children, or don’t have anywhere to go. As a result, many stay in abusive relationships for years.

Unfortunately, some abusers use technology to help them exert control over their victims. IBM points out that in the wrong hands, devices designed to make people’s lives safer and more convenient can actually become tools of abuse. Take a connected doorbell app, for instance. These devices are meant to keep people safe by allowing them to see who is at the door, but it can help abusers keep track of their victims by sending notifications about who is coming and going from the house. Credit card apps that provide notifications when a purchase is made can be used to monitor a victim’s whereabouts and spending.

If you happen to work in the technology sector, there are things you can do to help ensure that the tools you create don’t actively contribute to the problem. In that report, IBM laid out five design principles to encourage developers, designers, architects, and others to create products that prevent domestic abuse.

Diversity

Technology is designed to solve problems, and it can be hard to understand other peoples’ needs. That’s why it’s so crucial to have a diverse group of people on the development team. By having different voices and perspectives at the table, you’ll be able to brainstorm a wider range of use cases, including situations of potential abuse.

Privacy and choice

Technology often makes it more complicated than necessary to change privacy settings. IBM points out that many victims of coercive control suffer stress-related exhaustion, which can make it even harder for them to change these settings so that their abuser can’t identify their whereabouts. So it’s important for tech companies to make it immediately obvious what information is shared and recorded. It is also a good practice to make sure the default setting puts privacy first.

Security and data

Many apps can be easily leveraged to spy on and control victims. This includes anti-theft and anti-fraud apps, friend locators, and parental control apps. Many victims aren’t aware that their abuser has manipulated the settings on their phone to spy on them. IBM recommends that companies carefully weigh the benefits of collecting user data against the dangers that this data could fall into the wrong hands. This means playing out possible instances of abuse during the product development process.

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Combatting gaslighting

Gaslighting involves gaining control over a victim by making him or her believe things that are not true, thereby forcing them to question their own memories and thoughts. Abusers can use technology to do this, particularly if a device or app can be controlled by more than one user or accessed remotely. IBM says that abusers can do things like modify the thermostat temperature, lock or unlock doors, change Wi-Fi passwords, or have phantom door bell callers to make their victim question reality. Some solutions to this include having a clearly accessible record of when changes have been made and ensuring that technology that lets people take control remotely has a manual override function.

Technical ability

Sometimes, abusers take advantage of imbalances in knowledge or technical ability, which allows them to use technology to harm the victim without them knowing. IBM also points out that technology is often marketed toward men, and data shows that men are more comfortable tinkering with technology than women, which sometimes contributes to this power imbalance in heterosexual relationships. Connected home solutions, for instance, tend to be installed operated and understood by a single user who is more confident with technology. If the victim of abuse doesn’t use or understand a particular technology, it is easier to cede more control to the abuser. So it’s crucial for designers and developers to ensure that technology can be intuitively used by a wide range of people, even those who are less technologically adept.

Many of these design principles are just good practice, in general. But examining them through the lens of domestic abuse shows how crucial thoughtful design really is.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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