DIY Cybersecurity for Domestic Violence

Feel free to visit DIY Cybersecurity for Domestic Violence. Consider this an introduction.


In writing the DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity, I expected state surveillance to be one of the most imminent threats to my readers. Yet, I never received requests on how to avoid law enforcement. Outreach was far more personal. Many of my readers, always women, were resisting abuse from their partners. This violence was digital. It was a hacked iPhone recording texts. It was a fake Facebook profile threatening physical harm. The loftier threats of political surveillance started to feel irrelevant. How can you resist the state when you're not even safe in your own home?

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Cybersecurity, as a political subject, has long been concerned with how our lives can be private or public when mediated through modern technology. This distinction between public and private is useless. It's an artifact of the Enlightenment era, where wealthy white men dreamed of patriarchal dominion separate from civic society. Privacy has never been granted to people whose bodies are ruthlessly surveilled, segregated, and exploited. So I chose to reject this privilege. I abandoned the question of "what should be public?" and redefined privacy to prioritize those who are subjected to violence.

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Privacy is the freedom to make personal decisions without harm.

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Sending texts. Walking outside. Exploring a website. Taking sexual photos. Every mundane activity is informed by a personal decision, conscious or otherwise, that takes into account the potential for harm. In a society marred by abuse, these decisions are inundated with threats of violence and control. If you are vulnerable because of your race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, or citizenship, you are not afforded privacy. If you are socially valued and your decisions inflict devastating harm? You are given all the privacy you want.

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Abuse adapts to technology. Location-sharing technologies, social media integration, web-based infrastructure, and smartphones have proliferated without adequate means of security. Within the tech industry, our privacy is ignored because it's more lucrative to build products for white men whose personal risks extend only as far as their personal finances and politics. Caring for the vulnerabilities of marginalized users is considered a liability, not within corporate scope. Privacy is bad for business.

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In the popular imagination, abuse is physical. Domestic Violence conjures images of battered women screaming, crying, and fleeing. Our tech is digital, so privileged developers rarely make a connection between their products and abuse. At best, lip-service will be given to cyberbullying or social media harassment, but at no point is there a discussion of abuse between intimate partners. This is not enough. I decided to create an activist resource that centers the cybersecurity of survivors. I needed a broader conceptual framework that connected privacy, technology, and domestic violence.

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Criticism. Isolation. Threats. Sometimes even physical abuse. These are the weapons of Coercive Control, a strategy against some people by their intimate partners. It usually includes some combination of degrading, isolating, micromanaging, manipulating, stalking, physically abusing, sexually coercing, threatening, or punishing. A relationship that should involve loving support ends up a trap designed for domination. Victims feel anxious, dependent, and afraid, deprived of their freedom, self-esteem, and basic rights.

- Lisa Aronson Fontes

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Domestic Violence, as an area of activism, carries a particular weight and recognition that makes its named presence necessary in my work. However, the framework of Coercive Control, put forth by Evan Stark and elaborated by Lisa Aronson Fontes in her book Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship, establishes a broader continuum of harmful behaviors that collude in the subjugation of vulnerable people by their partners.

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Coercive control is a crisis in every patriarchal society. It's embedded in our governance, our technology, and our interpersonal relationships. But we can't dismantle oppression without protecting each other first. For many survivors, resistance starts at home.
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If your partner is coercive: they can seize your texts and emails when they're paranoid about your relationship. They can threaten to share your sexual photos on social media to humiliate and punish you. They can stalk your physical location through smartphone apps that soak up GPS data. The opportunities for coercive control are growing exponentially, yet user protections are diminutive or non-existent. Thus, I developed a website, DIY Cybersecurity for Domestic Violence, as a tool of harm reduction. Transition House, a wonderful Domestic Violence agency in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was instrumental in ensuring this resource meaningfully addressed the digital vulnerabilities that survivors face.

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Without judgement or obligation, DIY Cybersecurity for Domestic Violence explores cybersecurity strategies that offer immediate and tangible protection to survivors. Each survivor is an authority on their own experience: I make no assumptions of what coercive control looks like for the reader. Rather, I highlight the most common patterns of tech-based abuse and suggest solutions tailored to varying degrees of safety. Every strategy is written for accessibility, emphasizing the security potential of existing technologies while minimizing the need for new products. I trust that each reader will recognize what they need and decide for themselves how to take action.

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DIY Cybersecurity for Domestic Violence is a bandaid. Coercive control and domestic violence are a scourge that abusers, specifically men, need to rectify. We cannot expect survivors and their loved ones to endure this alone.

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Most people of privilege are paranoid about privacy in a narrowly technical or political sense. We can seize their concerns and pivot to work that prioritizes survivors. Privacy, when defined as the freedom to make personal decisions without harm, is malleable enough to critique real technologies while adapting to the needs of vulnerable populations.

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Identify how coercive control permeates our technology and our relationships. Amplify survivors' stories and material needs. Force these conversations into the consciousness of everyone who engages in the control of others. Demand accountability to the extent it is safe to do so. These are radical acts of love. Everyone deserves privacy.