If you need urgent help related to domestic abuse please contact Women's Aid or call the National Domestic Violence helpline on 0808 2000 247.

We are living in a truly digital age. And digital is now synonymous with social. Technology has the power to connect us and share our lives, and that can be inspiring. But what if you are in a situation where you want – or need – to do just the opposite? What if you are being controlled and surveilled as a victim of domestic abuse? What if you are in hiding and living in fear that your location will be revealed to the wrong person? What if you fear for your life and your children’s lives if you take a step out of turn?

We all know of the dark side of technology – addiction, clickbait, the selling of data, cyber bullying and the damage to mental health as a result of unrealistic body images and the rest. But for many who are experiencing, or recovering from domestic abuse, the dangers are often magnified by the power of technology.

shadows of people showing domestic abuse

The UK government’s definition of domestic abuse is: “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional.”

Women’s Aid provides a little more specificity stating that domestic abuse can include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Coercive control (a pattern of intimidation, degradation, isolation and control with the use or threat of physical or sexual violence
  • Psychological and/or emotional abuse 
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Financial or economic abuse
  • Harassment and stalking
  • Online or digital abuse

2 million people suffer some form of domestic abuse each year in England and Wales. And currently over 100,000 people in the UK are at high risk of being murdered or seriously injured as a result of domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is no joke.

In 2016, Comic Relief commissioned a collaborative “Tech Vs Abuse” research piece to better understand the potential for digital tools to support people affected by abuse. The research was undertaken by SafeLives, Snook and Chayn, and gathered insights from over 200 survivors of domestic abuse and 350 practitioners who support them.

The research report found that digital has been a significant tool for perpetrators to exacerbate abuse. Almost half of women involved said they were monitored online or controlled with technology – through trackers, apps or internet blockers; and 90% of 307 practitioners saw technology as a risk and felt they did not fully understand how to use technology effectively and safely. Supporting this, an online survey of women who had experienced abuse revealed that only one in five said their online activity was not monitored by their partner. Almost half (47%) said that they were monitored, and a quarter said they did not know.

This supports the findings from a survey conducted by Women’s Aid (2014) which reported that 45% of women experienced some form of abuse online during their relationship, and 48% experienced harassment and abuse online from their ex-partner once they’d left the relationship. And nearly a third of respondents (29%) experienced the use of spyware or GPS locators on their phone or computers by a partner or ex-partner.

a domestic abuse victim in the dark looking at technology
tech showing facebook within binoculars
woman holding phone to her mouth displaying whatsapp logo

Hannah’s story

Recently, I spoke to a friend, whose sister has been in a long-term abusive relationship with her male partner. (For the purposes of this blog, I’ll call my friend Hannah and her sister Beth). Due to the negative effects of Beth’s abusive relationship, Hannah and her wife now take care of her niece (Beth’s daughter) acting as legal guardians. Hannah spoke to me about her firsthand experience of witnessing domestic abuse in her family, the impact that it has had, and her thoughts about technology as both an exacerbator and a solution.

“I worry about digital and the opportunities it presents to perpetrators.”

'Hannah'

“The person being abused needs to be untraceable. But so do their children. If children are posting online it presents another channel of control for the abuser. It’s so hard to police their online activity though. Trying to have autonomy as a young person whilst people are saying “Don’t put anything on Insta!” is really difficult.”

It’s clear that for survivors of domestic abuse and their families, technology presents dangers. Seemingly harmless apps, such as ‘Find My Phone’ are being utilised by perpetrators as a method of surveillance straight from a remote device; and social media posts are being used to find clues about a person’s location – whether individuals mean to give this information away or not.

This poses serious considerations about intent vs implementation of any digital solutions that we develop in the tech for good sector, particularly within the context of domestic abuse and digital support services for survivors. To combat this, as declared in the Tech Vs Abuse research report: “You have to think as an abuser.” We need to engage with survivors of abuse, their families, support networks, charities in the sector and, perhaps even abusers themselves, to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of creating services to support survivors which in reality make their situation a whole lot worse.

Should we steer away from digital?

The Tech vs Abuse research report found that, though there are considerable risks with digital, there are also major opportunities to fill current gaps in service provision and provide a safety net to survivors of abuse in times before, during and after crisis. For example, in a survey of 92 survivors of abuse, 14% said that digital presents an opportunity to have important legal queries answered without making appointments, whilst 13% said it provides a way to safely record abuse. And almost half (47%) said that connecting with services and support services through technology had already been a positive experience, particularly helping to reduce feelings of isolation.

There is clearly the need for digital to play a part in the fight against domestic abuse. And there are certainly clever tricks we can use to create digital support services that are more discreet and less likely to be found by, or raise the suspicion of, perpetrators. These could be straightforward and relatively non-technical like using the Cloud to store information remotely; disguising digital support as something mundane such as news sites or calculators; or raising awareness of the digital support available in more covert spaces such as womens’ public toilets or embedded in everyday brands’ websites.

the back of a woman stood in front of striped lighting

Options also range to the more innovative and technically intricate like manipulating browser history using JavaScript to make digital activity less traceable; or ‘hiding’ information behind certain code words or passcodes which could be provided to survivors on a needs-only basis by an approved third party individual or organisation. 

At Reason Digital, we have worked with beneficiaries on many occasions to design digital services that have discreetness at the heart. We worked with Ugly Mugs – a national charity working to end violence against sex workers – to create an app to allow sex workers to instantly and secretly alert others about threatening behaviour in the area, without fear of prosecution. The idea is that their smartphone can be used as a panic button which, through effective and discreet design, allows sex workers to communicate their current location to a trusted contact and request help, without alerting the perpetrator. We co-produced the app with sex workers and experts in the field; and took out prototypes to wherever our users were – brothels, outreach sessions and under canal bridges – for informal consultations. 

Through the co-creation process, we realised fast that we also needed to ensure that the app didn’t inadvertently end up as a database disclosing information on where every sex worker in Britain is. Privacy is key: so we added location fuzzing into the app so the specific location of any sent message isn’t known. Suspicious or criminal activity will immediately alert others in the vicinity and be shared anonymously with support agencies and police without compromising the anonymity of the sex worker(s). 

This kind of creative use of technology is the key to making digital work for, rather than against, survivors of domestic abuse. It is these techniques that will allow us to flip what could easily act as threats into opportunities; and there are already examples of digital innovations doing just that. 

Current digital support services to tackle domestic abuse

As part of the Tech vs Abuse research, a market scan uncovered a plethora of digital solutions and services already out there being used to support people experiencing or recovering from domestic abuse. However, it found that there were still crucial gaps in provision. The Tech vs Abuse grant initiative was launched in January 2017 off the back of the findings, funded jointly through the Tampon Tax Fund, a partnership between Comic Relief and HM Government, and the Big Lottery Fund. It focused on finding innovative tech solutions to the following design challenges:

2017 Tech vs Abuse Design Challenges

Realising it’s abuse Safer Digital Footprint Fifteen minute window Accessible legal and financial information Effective real-time support services
Use the creative opportunities of the web to raise awareness of what an abusive relationship looks like, provoking women and girls experiencing abuse to recognise this and get support. Provide people affected by domestic abuse and frontline professionals the confidence and knowledge they need to use technology and stay online safely, with full control over their online data, privacy settings and social media accounts. Provide or curate key information online for women experiencing domestic abuse in a way which is easy to find, simple to navigate and quick to interact with. Create engaging, accessible and digestible information on the legal process or the financial situation women find themselves in, connecting to support and advice where relevant. Enable women to find and access services for support (including referrals) when required, day or night, seamlessly and with minimal logistical and emotional burden.

There were 10 Tech vs Abuse funded projects in 2017-2018, all focused on achieving one of the design challenges (above) through digital innovation. For example, Hestia sought to tackle the ‘fifteen minute window’ challenge by developing the Bright Sky app – an app that (disguised as a weather app) provides support and information to those in an abusive relationship or those concerned about someone they know. The funding allowed them to improve the design & UI of Bright Sky, add additional content, and include more language options. Aanchal worked on the challenge “realising it’s abuse” by developing an app to support GPs to safeguard their patients. And Safelives worked with frontline practitioners to help victims of abuse to use technology and the internet safely.

I asked Hannah about the current gaps, and how digital might support her and her family based on her experience. Here’s what she told me:

“In a significant proportion of domestic abuse cases, there is an issue which perpetrators latch onto – for example a mental health problem or a substance misuse issue – because you’re more vulnerable which perpetrators can capitalise on.

“My sister spends long periods of time without her partner in her life – especially when he’s in prison. She has a substance misuse problem, but when he’s not been around she’s managed to stay clean for a long time, until he’s back out again – he’ll literally stop to pick up on his way back home, track her down and coerce her into using.”

“I don’t think multiple and complex needs are considered enough in services for survivors – there is no joined up platform of support.”

“There are so many touch points in my sister’s life, but they’re not aware of the others. Police see a junkie. Social services see a bad mother. Housing sees a bad tenant. They’re not speaking together, but it’s really key to each of the provisions that they understand it. Part of a solution could be about educating all of these services to look out for the right things and provide advice and holistic support.”

'Hannah'

With digital comes the amazing opportunity to capture data across services, to gather comprehensive insights into a person’s life and provide the support they require. Digital could be the glue that joins together a fragmented service, ensuring that people who need support do not slip between the cracks. 

With data comes a whole host of considerations and potential issues around privacy and surveillance that would need to be accounted for. As Hannah asked: “Does your GP need to know all the information about your abusive relationship? If you legitimately go to the doctors with a child who’s injured, would you be afraid of misconceptions and backlash?”

Then there’s the issue of getting services to talk together and work towards a shared outcome whilst battling separate and multiple priorities. There’s certainly not an easy solution, but it seems that what we really need is for local and national services such as charities, NHS bodies, police and crime commissioners, data scientists and government representatives, is to come together alongside survivors of domestic abuse and their families to co-create an approach to supporting survivors, including considerations around data and privacy.

love shouldn't hurt painted on a domestic abuse victim
woman using technology
women using technology

Another area in which Hannah identified a potential opportunity for digital is in children’s services:

“I think there needs to be something there for children who have lived with or witnessed this abuse.”

“I really worry about the long term effects that witnessing abuse has on my niece who is now 13.  She doesn’t live with my sister (her mother) and doesn’t see much of her, but even so, she is aware of everything that is going on.” 

“My niece was removed from the abusive environment at an early age. She attended support group events with other children who had witnessed abuse, and had counselling at primary school. But she has now moved to a much larger high school, where there’s not that much support available. She may not even want it now.” 

“She is getting to the age where she realises that there is something different about her family dynamic. There’s a stigma there. She just wants to be normal, and part of this is resisting any support that has a stigma attached.”

a child that looks unhappy and upset

“I wonder how tech might be able to better support children living with or witnessing abuse. They are naturally tech-savvy and very social media driven – could this be a way to connect? If my niece could have a discreet online tool – for mentoring, peer support or information – that she could use as and when she wanted, this could really help.”

‘Hannah’

The Tech vs Abuse research report found that peer-to-peer support can be a very powerful form of support for survivors of abuse. And there are lots of digital peer to peer platforms currently out there, such as Facebook groups and the Women’s Aid Survivors Forum. Moreover, ‘information on how to help children of parents who are abuse survivors was the fourth most popular answer in a Facebook poll run as part of the research process. Despite this, there is no peer to peer tool currently out there designed specifically for children who have experienced and/or witnessed abuse, and this gap in provision needs to be filled.

Hannah also spoke to me about the need for a collaborative approach to logging evidence of abuse across families: 

“Even when people do realise they are living with abuse, there is often no action – and even family members can rationalise what is going on.”

“It’s easy to forget how bad things have been when the abuser is ‘doing well’ or seems to have changed.”

“Even my Mum has gone from worrying that every phone call is the police to say my sister has been killed, to testifying in court to have a restraining order lifted because her partner seems to have changed.”

'Hannah'

“I think tech could help with this. A collective record contributed to by family and children alongside survivors themselves, could act as a reminder of the severity and gravity of the situation and build robust evidence.”

There are currently some brilliant evidence-collection platforms out there, such as Just Evidence which allows survivors to record, describe and validate evidence. Or SmartSafe+, which has been designed to assist women to collect and store evidence in order to support them to get an intervention order, or prove a breach. But what strikes me is that these apps focus predominantly on evidence-gathering for legal purposes; with one person acting as the ‘gatherer’. It seems that there could be merit in pursuing a crowd-contributed log which survivors, alongside trusted friends and family members, come together to piece together a collective truth. Rather than (just) focusing on evidence for legal proceedings, could there be a focus instead on understanding or reinforcing the full picture of the abuse that’s taking place to support challenge number 1: ‘realising it’s abuse’, whilst uniting survivors with a support network around them?

The future of tech to combat abuse

Since my conversation with Hannah, Tech Vs Abuse have released another research report: Tech vs Abuse 2.0, which builds on, explores and updates the original findings.

Findings of the second report saw even more risks and fears surrounding technology, with the widespread uptake of smartphones and Internet of Things devices making it even easier for perpetrators to use tech to abuse. However, on the flip side, it also found that there are now more digital solutions than ever to support survivors. In addition the need for more digital solutions particularly around early stage prototypes, to support those in need of access to services and support, is still very much there. Specifically, there is a greater recognition of the need to extend support to those who are recovering from an abusive relationship – be it help with their finances, or with offsetting the risk of falling into a similar relationship in the future.

These findings have been used to develop four key design challenges:

2019 Tech vs Abuse Design Challenges

Realising it’s abuse Finding the right information at the right time Effective real-time support services Recovery
People have a better understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like, realising when they are experiencing abuse in their relationship and/or when they are abusive towards others. Friends, family, co-workers and professionals they interact with are also better able to identify this and know how best to support them. People are able to find the right information at the right time. Using different platforms, they can access relevant, trustworthy, and safe sources. Key tools and resources are easy to find, simple to navigate, and quick to interact with. People of all ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, and abilities can easily find resources relevant to them. People can find and access services for support (including referrals, if required) seamlessly and with minimal logistical and emotional burden, in a format that works in the moment, context, and time people have. Real-time support is available when it’s most needed, including in the middle of the night or during the weekend. People of all ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations, and abilities can easily connect with services relevant to them. People have access to advice, information, resources and tools to help rebuild their lives, tailored to different situations. This includes support for mental health issues, confidence building, practical needs, families affected by abuse, and understanding healthy relationships.

In response to these design challenges, a second round of the funding programme was announced, which is currently in the shortlisting and assessment stage, and is funded jointly with Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Clothworkers’ Foundation

At Reason Digital, we greatly welcome the fund. Tech vs Abuse is an amazing initiative that has the potential to help thousands of people recognise and recover from a situation that can literally be a case of life or death. We particularly welcome the more inclusive focus, and recognition that ‘people of all ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations and abilities’ can be victims of abuse. We felt that the first report would have benefitted from recognising the unique manifestations of abuse experienced by more specific groups, such as trans women, who often face other multi-faceted layers of social exclusion which make seeking help even harder. We believe it’s an important step to actively recognise diversity here.

We feel that this diversity must be reflected in the tech industry in order to create digital solutions which are genuinely inclusive and user-centric – it’s no secret that the industry is currently saturated with white, straight, middle class men. Though the tide is starting to turn, when I speak at digital conferences, for every woman in the audience, I still see ten more men staring back at me. And the results are digital tools created for – you guessed it – white, straight, middle class men. For example, last year, one of the largest international digital retailers – Amazon – were under fire for creating an Artificial Intelligence-based recruitment service which was inherently sexist.

a trans woman holding leaves
three women smiling together
a woman's hand reaching out to a man's hand

I feel really proud to work for a digital social enterprise that is making active steps to foster diversity and inclusivity. Last year, we decided to publish Reason Digital’s gender pay gap, which was found to actually sway in women’s favour. And my colleague, Ian, wrote a brilliant blog, Gender diversity and discrimination: how not to be part of the problem, which explores how people in positions of privilege can support diversity rather than exacerbate the problem. 

We also have a Women’s Leadership Group, which all women in the organisation are invited to join, in which we discuss any issues or obstacles we face as women, hold coaching sessions to support us to overcome them, and agree and implement training needs for the wider organisation to encourage equality. This year, we’ve held sessions on ‘Imposter Syndrome’, ‘Networking’, and ‘Inclusivity in the Workplace’ (which was delivered by the LGBT Foundation).

a group of schoolgirls presenting in an office

This year, we’ve also been working closely with InnovateHer an organisation who have been set up to get more young women into STEM careers, with a particular focus on web development, gaming and tech for good. We are working with a group of twenty school girls around mentoring, field trips and helping them with a tech for good solutions for parents, carers and children at Alderhey Children’s Hospital.

Currently, 35% of Reason Digital is made up of women, with 44% of our Senior Management Team made up of women. 33% of our staff identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual; and 27% have a physical or mental illness or disability. These stats are very encouraging, particularly in the industry that we’re in. However, we recognise that we still have some way to go, especially with having more black, Asian and minority ethnic representation; which we’re actively working towards.

We pride ourselves on leading by example with diversity and inclusivity, and believe it puts us in a unique position to be able to disrupt and create real change in the tech industry. This will be absolutely vital in the fight against domestic abuse, and I implore all our peers in the industry who are developing digital solutions to open up the conversation to ensure that diversity is championed and everyone’s voice is heard.

In short, we have an amazing opportunity with the Tech vs Abuse fund to create digital solutions that have the potential to help thousands of people experiencing and recovering from Abuse. However, this opportunity also comes with huge risks that need to be offset wherever possible. I am reminded of a quote that David Heinemann brought to my attention recently during his talk at our annual Charity Digital Conference in partnership with the Directory of Social Change. The quote was from ‘The Book of Radical Love’, published by Ates Ilyas Bassoy, the Head of Campaigning from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has been hailed as the reason for the party’s recent election success in April of this year, ending a quarter-century conservative rule in Turkey.

“A knife is useful for slicing bread and fruit. But the same knife can also be used to hurt someone. Therefore, we can’t call a knife useful or harmful. The important thing is how we use it.”

Ates Ilyas Bassoy

These words certainly ring true in the context of domestic abuse and technology. Just like a knife, technology has the potential to be useful or destructive. We in the tech sector need to tread that edge carefully. We need to be led by the expertise of charities, organisations, services and, most importantly, individuals with lived experience – like Hannah and her sister – to create tools with beneficiaries for beneficiaries, that are genuinely useful, and empower survivors of abuse rather than oppress them further.

Reason Digital News

Get our latest news, advice and research
posts to your inbox every month.

What do you care about?

Are you interested in a specific sector?