Cornell Researchers Create Novel Approach to Prevent Tech Abuse

Cornell Tech researchers recently created a new method of helping domestic abuse survivors stop their assailants from gaining unauthorized access into their social media and devices to harass them.

The model focuses on ‘continuity of care’, so clients will have a hitch-free relationship with a volunteer tech consultant over time, like in a healthcare setting. It pairs survivors with consultants who empathize with them, establish trust, offer them ways to safely communicate, and securely stores their tech abuse history and concerns.

‘Personal data management in tech abuse is a complex thing that can’t always be “solved” in a single half-hour visit,’ said Emily Tseng, doctoral student and lead author of a paper on the model. ‘Most of the approaches that exist in tech support are limited by a one-size-fits-all protocol more akin to an emergency room than a primary care provider.’

The paper ‘Care Infrastructure for Digital Security in Intimate Partner Violence’ will be presented in April at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in New Orleans.

Tseng and her colleagues at Cornell Tech’s Clinic to End Tech Abuse developed the novel method, in collaboration with New York City’s Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-based Violence. Their research is based on eight months of data, and interviews with volunteer technology consultants and experts on intimate partner violence.

‘This work provides an honest look at both the benefits and burdens of running a volunteer technology consultant service for IPV survivors, as well as the challenges that arise as we work to safely provide computer security advice as care,’ said co-author Nicola Dell, Associate Professor at Cornell Tech. ‘Our hope is that our experiences will be valuable for others who are interested in helping at-risk communities experiencing computer insecurity.’

Survivors experience a wide range of gender-based violence, including technology-facilitated abuse, said Cecile Noel, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-based Violence. ‘Cornell Tech’s groundbreaking program not only helps survivors experiencing technology abuse but is also working to better understand how people misuse technology so that we can create better protections for survivors. We are proud of the critical role our longstanding partner Cornell Tech plays in improving the lives of survivors.’

‘In an ideal world, the people on the “Geek Squad” would be able to treat tech abuse with the sensitivity of a social worker,’ said Tseng.

Assailants can abuse their victims through tech such as spyware, and inappropriate and unauthorized use of location-tracking features in mobile devices. They also harass the victims on social media, by posting private pictures and posing as the victims to extort or alienate their friends and family.

In previous models, counselors were anonymous, severely inhibiting their ability to establish trust with survivors. Fixed one-time appointments were not enough to fully address the client’s needs, and survivors who couldn’t find a private place to take a call were unable to access their counselors at other times. It is frustrating and repetitive for survivors to share their traumatic stories with new consultants each appointment, said Tseng.

A long-term goal of the team is to provide the survivors with peace of mind and feelings of confidence and empowerment. ‘With technology, there are so many ways to remain entangled with your abuser even after you’ve physically and romantically left the relationship,’ Tseng said.

A tricky part is deciding how much support they can actually provide. While a one-time ‘urgent care’ visit is insufficient, prolonged engagement wouldn’t be sustainable for the consultants and the clinic. ‘In several cases, consultants ended up working with clients over many appointments stretching on for weeks or months,’ said Tseng.

The next step is for Tseng is exploring other ways to examine ongoing security-care relations, from the survivor’s view, especially people from minorities.

By Marvellous Iwendi.

Source: Cornell University