Empower through Design: Making Technology Inherently Safer

Posted on by Lesley Nuttall

Imagine being terrified of technology. Being fearful to leave the home, afraid to connect with friends and scared that if you do not follow every single rule, the all-seeing devices in your home will know—and so will your abuser. This isn’t some fictional, dystopian tale but instead a daily reality for a multitude of domestic abuse victims.

As society evolves and technology becomes a core part of our everyday routines, the ability to control or be controlled is being aided by the very devices and technology that were intended to improve our lives.

Manipulation of Technology

It is widely accepted that technology offers tremendous potential for good. But while technologies create new opportunities, they can also bring challenges.

Security professionals are more familiar with this than most, as they regularly disrupt the exploitation of technology to steal or destroy data and assets. However, bad actors are increasingly exploiting tech for another purpose—domestic abuse. Those same technologies that connect and protect us are being manipulated to exert an unprecedented level of dominance over victims.

To help tackle this issue, a UK team recently researched and published five key design principles to help technologists prevent their products from being used as a tactic of domestic abuse, ushering in a new generation of inherently safer technology.

Societal Issue of Our Time

Domestic abuse is a pervasive societal problem, and anyone of any gender, age, race or religion can be a victim, or a perpetrator. In the United Kingdom and United States, it is estimated that nearly one in three women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, while intimate partner violence is thought to be a reality for 65 percent of women in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

While the control that abusers exert isn’t new, the tools that they use are, with cases of technology-facilitated abuse on the rise. UK charity Refuge, that runs the UK national domestic abuse helpline, found that nearly three-quarters of the people seeking their help last year had faced abuse via technology. In the past two years, they have also seen a rise in cases that involve abusers using IoT devices against their victims. It is very possible that such cases are underreported because many victims may be unaware of what is happening to them.

The forms of tech-facilitated abuse are numerous, with perpetrators often leveraging technology to monitor and track, threaten, gaslight or otherwise manipulate their victims to maintain a position of power. Even applications designed with the best of intentions are being used with malicious intent. Some examples are the connected doorbell, designed with safety in mind, being used to monitor and entrap victims, and the credit card app, created to help combat fraud, being used to restrict and constantly monitor a partner’s spending.

Empower through Design

Given the complexities of technology-facilitated abuse, there is no easy answer to ending it. However, we can help by adopting a thoughtful approach to design, balancing the intended with the unintended consequences of our products.

These five technology design principles to combat domestic abuse act as guidelines for technologists and developers, helping to ensure their technologies are resistant to being manipulated for harm:

  • Promoting diversity so that designers of technology consider all potential users of the technology, thus allowing greater exploration of both positive and negative use cases.
  • Guaranteeing privacy and choice so that users can make active, informed decisions about their privacy settings, where default values are carefully considered.
  • Combatting gaslighting so that there is a digital record of evidence, disrupting attempts at manipulating victims into doubting their memories and judgement.
  • Strengthening security and data by thinking beyond traditional threat models so that users of technology have joint control, only collecting and sharing necessary information.
  • Making technology more intuitive so that victims can understand and navigate it with ease.

A research paper delves into these principles in more detail, with numerous examples to add context. By sharing this set of design principles, the aim is to provide the tools and knowledge for enhancing the usability, security and privacy of new technologies—making technology safer for all of us.

A Foundation of Compassion

Few in the technical community intentionally create technology to cause harm, but it is possible that we are disconnected from the unintended effects of those creations. That is why we ask that anyone developing new technology adopt these principles.

By building products from the ground up with an eye toward making it resistant to abuse, our creations will improve the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Compassion should be our foundation, always. And in today’s world, this is more important than ever.

Lesley Nuttall

, IBM Security Expert Labs

Human Element DevSecOps & Application Security

application security data security

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