TRANSCRIPT—Technology in Victim Assistance
NARRATOR: Welcome to the Achieving Excellence Podcast Series. These podcasts bring you important issues facing those who serve victims and survivors of crime. In this segment, Cindy Southworth, the Vice President of Development and Innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, presents an overview of high- and low-tech advances in the field of victim assistance. She talks about how the use of technology can be both helpful and harmful in keeping victims and survivors safe. Although technology constantly changes, the model standards provide a framework for victim assistance based on traditional principles.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: VICE PRESIDENT OF DEVELOPMENT AND INNOVATION AT THE NATIONAL NETWORK TO END DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: It's important to know about technology. It is pretty impossible to be a solid fabulous victim advocate in a digital age if you can't talk to victims about technology use and technology misuse. So when a victim comes to your local victim service agency and says, "I'm worried that my phone's being monitored or my computer's been hacked or that spyware might be on my computer," we want victim advocates to know how to handle those questions and feel confident that they can safety plan with any victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or trafficking about technology stalking and safety. So it's more important to think about the activities we're doing, the ways that we're providing services, the ways that we're documenting our services, than whether we're doing it on paper or electronically, whether it's done by a smart phone or a laptop or mainframe. It's more important that we think about the principles of confidentiality, privacy, autonomy, respect, dignity—those types of principles, which are woven throughout these model standards for excellence.
NARRATOR: Technology gives offenders new ways to harass victims. Offenders hack into web-based accounts such as online banking, email, and social media like Facebook. Once in, the offender impersonates the victim.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: Often offenders and abusers know a victim's passwords. Perhaps they've dated, they may have shared passwords; or it's the mother's maiden name, pet's name, perhaps date of birth—any of those things that an abuser or an offender or an ex-partner could guess. And so it's really a problem when offenders illegitimately access a victim's account. It might be a bank account, it might be a social networking account, it might be an email account. Many offenders will impersonate their victim, send out messages as if it is the victim to the victim's boss as a way to try to get her fired. They'll send embarrassing things to her family and friends and will also post sexually explicit photos in her social networking account and make it look like she's doing these things, when in reality it's not. They'll often lock the victim out of their own account. So once the offender has made it into the Facebook account or the email account or even the bank account, they'll change the password or PIN number, making it impossible for the victim to access that account.
NARRATOR: Problems like these can actually be addressed quickly. In many cases, you can simply call the bank or tech company and have them reset passwords or PIN numbers. It's important that the victim assistance providers are aware of new issues that come with new technology. To be prepared to address these issues, organizations will find they must review their training, planning, and program policies.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: On the upside is that technology, when it's misused, creates a phenomenally persuasive digital trail that you can take into court and use it to prove that the stalking, the abuse, the harassment, the monitoring did indeed occur. Twenty, 30 years ago, when a victim was stalked, harassed, and threatened, often the abuser did it when there were no witnesses, and it was entirely up to the victim to have to convince the judge that these behaviors happened and she's terrified and why.
NARRATOR: Your understanding of technology can make a difference in the quality of your plans of action for victims and survivors. If someone receives an email containing offensive or disturbing content, they should save the original email. Law enforcement can retrieve information deep within the email's header, and this information can become part of the paper trail in court.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: It's important for survivors to save the original email message in its electronic form so that you can get the additional email header information that lives with it and behind it. Printing it out will show you the text of it but it doesn't show you the email header that actually allows law enforcement to trace it back to the stalker.
NARRATOR: Many people don't know that technology used for communication can be spoofed. Perpetrators may send text messages disguising their identities and claiming to be someone else.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: The stalker might actually be sending threatening messages to the victim that would make it look like they're coming from her sister. And the only way to prove that they did indeed come from the stalker is to go to the phone carrier and subpoena those records. Unfortunately, those records may only exist for 24, 48, 72 hours; it depends, carrier by carrier.
NARRATOR: The brief life span of this potential evidence introduces a new necessary skill for those who work with victims and survivors. Many victims may be initially hesitant to go to law enforcement for help. Victim service providers may need to stress to their clients the possible data loss that can occur if records aren't subpoenaed quickly.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: Many victims are not sure they want to go to the police yet, and that's their absolute right. What we do encourage victim advocates to do, though, is talk to victims and say, "It's completely your choice if you want to work with law enforcement or not. I'm never going to pressure you to do that. However, if, down the road, you think you might want to go to the police about this threatening text message, we're probably going to need to get the evidence quickly before it disappears from the phone carrier's databases."
NARRATOR: Many crimes perpetrated with new technology are not new crimes. Keeping close observation on a victim's movements, daily activities, and location is an old practice. For years, victims have been tracked by checking car odometers. Whether it's done this way or with GPS, it's still stalking behavior. Through the use of GPS monitoring, perpetrators can now gather more information than ever without victims knowing they're being tracked.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: There's different ways that GPS can be misused for victims. One of them is a physical device that is attached to the car, and they sell them for keeping track of shipping trucks, they sell them sometimes to parents to keep an eye on your children's driving speeds, those types of things. However, some of the features do not lend themselves to child safety. One product, actually, it says it's about kids' safety but they allow you to flash the dome light, lock and unlock the doors, and honk the horn. So it does make me wonder if these products are really designed to help your child be safer or is it really designed as a stalking, and threatening, and harassment tool for abusers and offenders. Another way that GPS can be misused is actually optional locational services on a smart phone. And it's really important for victims to know they can go into their phone settings to see what is using location services or not.
NARRATOR: Some location services can be disabled temporarily. A low-tech solution may be necessary if a stalker catches on when victims and survivors attempt to manually change their locations.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: The challenge with that is it might increase suspicion by the abuser. So another strategy is to accidentally, quote unquote, leave the phone at home when she's going to meet with an attorney or a victim advocate, instead of taking it with her.
NARRATOR: GPS can be an extremely useful tool in helping victims and law enforcement keep a close watch on those suspected of or convicted of stalking or other dangerous behavior.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: More and more communities are using GPS monitoring of offenders as one strategy to help them keep survivors safe and holding offenders accountable.
NARRATOR: There are two main ways that GPS is used to monitor an offender's activity. The first is a type of passive monitoring, which is used more commonly for non-violent offenders. This method uses a device worn around the ankle all day to record where a person has been. It's plugged into a system at night and sends information to the offender's probation or parole officer. The officer can see if the offender has gone somewhere they weren't supposed to go. The second type—a live GPS monitor—is used much more frequently for offenders who stalk and threaten victims and survivors.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: The more commonly used style of GPS monitoring is called active tracking, and that anklet is connected with a satellite and is constantly tracking, real time. That provides much more notice and information if the offender is moving into an area of the community where the victim is, where the victim goes to work, school, any place the offender is prohibited from going. The thing that's important to remember is GPS monitoring is not an invisible shield. It will not stop a bullet and it will not ultimately keep the victim safe if there are not enough community resources.
NARRATOR: Using GPS to monitor perpetrators is only effective if law enforcement is available to respond. If there is a lapse in response time after authorities are alerted, the purpose of monitoring is defeated. Distance and response time are often issues in rural communities. GPS satellites can also lose service, much like cell phones, and are useless in areas where connection isn't attainable. This could be dangerous in a place like a courthouse, where perpetrators and survivors might both be found.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: It's important when using GPS monitoring that we don't promise things to a victim that we can't deliver. So it's a great strategy, it's a great tool as part of a coordinated community response, which means sufficient victim advocates to safety plan, enough law enforcement and trained law enforcement, and then judges that will actually hold offenders accountable when they are brought into court for violating that GPS monitoring.
NARRATOR: How secure data is or can be on a computer is another constantly changing area of technology. Although many improvements have been made for data security, new problems also arise. New to the field of victim assistance is the need to understand the programs that are designed to access information without a user's knowledge. Spyware increases the threat to a person's privacy and safety.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: With spyware on a computer, it will monitor and record every single key stroke logged, every website visited; every single thing that a survivor does on a computer will be recorded, and it is virtually impossible to discover that spyware. It doesn't show up in the history, you don't know it's there, the computer runs just as fast. The only way survivors typically know is because the stalker is challenging the victim on activity she did on the computer. Why were you researching protection orders? Why were you emailing your sister? Those types of questions would allow a victim to realize that his or her computer activities were being monitored.
NARRATOR: Perpetrators can begin spying without setting foot in someone's home. The software can be installed from another location without the person's knowledge or consent.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: There are products out there that allow you to remotely install spyware on your victim's computer. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission went after Remote Spy and filed a civil lawsuit against that company because they allowed you to spy on any computer from anywhere by installing their spyware without a person's knowledge. You can also physically install it onsite, so a lot of them allow you to very quickly install it either from a USB flash drive or you can download it from the internet—truly, in less than 5 minutes—and then remove all trails of the installation and run it in stealth mode.
NARRATOR: One solution to this problem can be using a computer in another location, such as an office or public library. With the rapid advance of technology, smart phones also present new threats.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: When it comes to phone spying, there is now spyware for smart phones. More and more, we are concerned about stalkers and abusers using spyware on a phone to track text messages sent, websites visited, emails sent; and I think that's only going to increase in the future as more and more of our computer use is being done by smart phones.
NARRATOR: When providing information over the web, agencies have the responsibility to make sure clients are notified that their activity may be monitored. Site visitors should be told to take proper precautions when researching sources for help.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: If you are a victim service provider and you have a website, you have an ethical responsibility to make sure that website educates victims about computer monitoring and misuse. In fact, we do not recommend that victim service providers tell victims they can clear their cache and history cleanly, because they can't. If there's spyware on the computer, it will merely record all of those steps that a victim is taking and alert the offender that not only is the victim looking for help, going to a domestic violence or stalking website, but also that the victim is trying to hide that from the abuser or stalker or offender.
NARRATOR: As technology evolves, organizations may want to review their policies and standards that address confidentiality, communication, and interagency collaboration. Data security touches all of these areas.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: Victim service providers over the years have been incredibly good at protecting paper records. Many of them were trained that it's critical you don't turn over a victim record for any reason to anyone. I was raised that I would go to jail to protect a victim's paper file. We need to take that same passion for victim privacy and safety and translate it into all files, including electronic files, from an Excel spreadsheet to a client's computer database that might be stored on the agency computers. One of the best ways to make sure that if you have to give any information away for any reason—whether it be you're at a community meeting and someone asks how survivors are doing in your programs and what are their biggest obstacles and challenges—is be careful about using anything that's truly unique to one person. So if you need to bring up the issue that women with large families and multiple children are having a hard time finding apartments because there just aren't enough in our housing projects and programs, that's fine. But you wouldn't want to say that a mother with six children is having a problem finding housing, because in a given tiny community that might only be one family, and you've just provided identifying information about a family you're serving.
NARRATOR: Another low-tech solution is to ensure that staff is trained to create robust passwords.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: Making sure that they're not using the word "password," which unfortunately in the United States is the most common password; making sure they're not using any word that's in the dictionary. The ideal password is at least eight characters long, if not longer, and has a combination of letters and numbers and often symbols in it, because if it's a dictionary word, it can usually be hacked in less than 7 seconds. There are software programs that will run and try every single word in the dictionary until it finds a match.
NARRATOR: It's also important to make sure the password chosen is easy to remember. It shouldn't have to be written down and stored at a desk where it can be found. Simple tricks like substituting a number for a letter—for example, "3" for an "E" or "1" for an "I"—can make a password safer.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: Staff also need to understand that encryption is a good thing. Encryption is fabulous; it basically just locks your records and locks your data a little bit. It's just like locking up your filing cabinet. The difference is it would be like giving your filing cabinet to someone on the street because they said, "Don't worry, it's locked." You would never give your filing cabinet away, even with it locked. So if someone's asking for confidential, privileged victim data, merely encrypting it is not alone enough to give it away. You're basically violating confidentiality. It's just giving away a locked filing cabinet that someone could unlock and open.
NARRATOR: It's also important for staff to understand how accessible email is. They need to be mindful about the sensitivity and confidentiality of all content sent electronically.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: It's important for victim service providers to think about email as very similar to a postcard, and we would never send postcards all over town talking about the victims and survivors that we're serving. We need to remember that when we're doing email because anyone can read almost any email anytime. They fly through cyberspace; someone can put their foot out and trip an email and read it—just flying around. One of the things that we have done on our website is if you want to access us by email, before you can, there are some safety tips to read about computer monitoring and passwords and safety. Once you've done that, you can actually fill out a form and ask for assistance but there are check boxes to do it. So you provide information up front: a safe way to reply—is it safe to reply by email, by phone? Is it safe to call? What time of day is it safe to call? Is it safe to leave a voicemail? That way there's a little mini safety plan on our website that, as you're reaching out to us, you're also providing information about how we can reply.
NARRATOR: Using basic principles of good practice, like those supported by the model standards, is key to providing quality services. Implementing straightforward guidelines and staying up to date with changing technology will support those who serve victims and survivors. This will allow service providers to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: They need to understand about firewalls, virus protection, encryption, hashing, confidentiality, what's identifiable. How can you re-identify data by just knowing someone's date of birth, gender, and zip code? One little fact there is 87 percent of the United States population can be re-identified by merely knowing their gender, their zip code, and their date of birth.
NARRATOR: The model standards provide a framework to help tackle both the traditional and new issues that arise from changing technology.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: I'm not too worried about any victim service provider being able to pick up that document and check them all off today, tomorrow, or perhaps even in a year. But if the conversations in staff meetings start about, should we have a social media presence? How do we do it? Can we friend each other? Can we post that we work at our local victim service provider on our social media page? I also think staff training around technology should be woven in to staff training about anything. If you're doing regular in-service trainings, make sure you're weaving in things such as effective passwords, computer use, firewalls.
NARRATOR: There are many issues that arise in the field from use of new technology. Still, the model standards provide guidelines for those who serve victims and survivors. Doing research, looking at similar cases, and reviewing the work of other organizations all can be useful when brainstorming solutions to new problems.
CINDY SOUTHWORTH: And sometimes it's as simple as going to the National Network to End Domestic Violence website and borrowing all of our language around internet safety. It's there for the taking; please help yourself to it and put it on your website. You can also link to our Internet Safety page, if that's useful. You can download handouts on technology tips and start having conversations at staff meetings. It can be quite basic. You can also start asking every victim you work with about the technology in their lives; you know, are they feeling comfortable, do they have any questions, do you want us to research it together? You don't have to know everything; just be willing to sit with the victim next to the computer in your office and figure it out, or know to pick up the phone and call national technical assistance providers like us and others to find out how can you best serve victims.
NARRATOR: The landscape of providing comprehensive victim services constantly changes, as evidenced by the technology issues in this podcast. The model standards consider both the traditional principles as well as the emerging issues. If you or your agency serve victims and survivors of crime, you will want the model standards in your toolbox.