Expert says we need to talk about technology

EVERYONE should be free to use technology and be safe, according to an international expert visiting Bendigo this week.

Cindy Southworth is in Australia as the keynote speaker at the 8th National Homelessness Conference on the Gold Coast next month.

Ms Southworth works with the US National Network to End Domestic Violence and has spent the past 12 years focusing on how technology can increase victim safety and how to hold perpetrators accountable for abusing technology.

The founder of the Safety Net Project has worked closely with Annie North chief executive Julie Oberin and Centre for Non Violence chief executive Margaret Augerinos, in their roles on the board of WESNET, the national peak body for domestic and family violence services across Australia.

Her training focuses on helping people protect themselves from being stalked, threatened, abused or located through technology – but also how they can seek help and collect evidence about abusers.

“So much of the population is using some form of technology – of course that’s what abusers are going to misuse,’’ she said.

“Abusers perpetrate their crime where we live our lives, and technology is part of it, so of course they’re going to use that space or misuse that space.’’

Ms Southworth believes we owe it to survivors to talk about technology and if we don’t, “we will end up harming victims by accident’’.

She says it is not a matter of asking ‘why doesn’t she just get off Facebook?’ but rather that no one should be told they have to stop using technology because denying victims access to technology further isolates them, which is the intent of abusers, and limits their economic opportunities.

“No woman should be forced to avoid technology,’’ Ms Southworth said.

“They should be safe wherever they go, and it should be that offenders are held accountable.’’

But women should never assume their perpetrator is not tech-savvy.

Ms Southworth recommends survivors trust their instincts.

“If you think your partner or former partner knows too much about your activities, it’s entirely possible they’re monitoring your computer use, your location through GPS or other tracking, and trust your instincts,’’ she said.

“My follow up to that is talk to a victim advocate – talk to someone at one of the local programs here, call a hotline or talk to law enforcement.

“Most partners know their victims or partners passwords, so they may be in their email, they may be reading messages to and from. So if a woman is emailing her sister saying ‘I’m pondering talking to an attorney, I’m thinking the abuse is escalating, I need to get out’ the offender may just be bluntly reading her email, they also may have purchased a spy product, they may have turned on a family locator plan that is intended to help keep children safe but being misused by an offender.’’

Ms Southworth encourages women to use safe technology, and if they think their phone is compromised, don’t use that phone to plan an escape.

“If you think your computer is compromised or your email account, go to the library and create a new email account and only use it there at the library,’’ she said.

“Get a pre-paid phone and keep it hidden so the offender doesn’t know you have it – if you suspect a technology has been compromised then assume it has been, it’s the safest course.’’

Those working in crisis response and violence prevention can also play a role in keeping women and children technologically safe, by recognising that “every piece of data is a person’s story”.

“Be thoughtful what you fill out, when someone asks for your information when you’re buying toys at the toy store, you don’t have to give them your information to get the coupons.

“I’m a 67-year-old man frequently when I fill out grocery discount store cards – I’m not legally bound to be accurate when I get my coupons.

“Be careful what you give away, but then also be really careful what you ask people and what you document – in any capacity, and whether that’s just an average person emailing a friend saying ‘hey I met a survivor today or a neighbour is being abused’, just be thoughtful about what you write about people, what you share, what you post, because it is someone’s life and someone’s story.

“Those of us in this field need to be very thoughtful about what we are requiring or asking refuges to collect – every time you ask someone to collect a piece of data, it is a piece of someone’s soul.

“There’s an assumption that if you want to get help you need to be willing to bare your soul.’’

Asking women to answer many personal questions often puts them through unnecessary stress and places permanent responses which could be taken out of context on their records.

Ms Southworth was left ‘steamed’ recently after seeing a campaign slogan ‘learn more so you can make good decisions’.

“I think survivors make good decisions every day and the decision they make is keeping them alive and sometimes that decision is staying with the offender because leaving will get them killed, it’s the most dangerous time,’’ she said.

“But then the flip of that is what if she made decisions that someone would deem unwise? Does she deserve to be assaulted? Of course not.

“I would never use the words good decision or bad decision around a victim of domestic violence, I think it’s an offensive concept.’’

Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service: 1800 015 188

 1800 RESPECT / 1800 73 7732

For technology safety training, contact WESNET on 1300 252 006

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