IBM Policy Lab

Five Technology Design Principles to Combat Domestic Abuse – IBM Policy Lab

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Author: Lesley Nuttall, IBM Security Accelerated Value Leader, IBM Cloud and Cognitive Software 

In response to a global surge in domestic violence, leading to a UN call for measures, the IBM Policy Lab has proposed five design principles aimed at combating a new breed of domestic abuse – technology-facilitated coercive control.

Domestic abuse is a widespread societal problem around the world. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of sexual and domestic violence in the developed world, with police responding to a family violence incident every four minutes. It is estimated that when psychological/emotional abuse is included, 55 per cent of New Zealand women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. In Australia, almost one in 10 Australian women in a relationship have experienced domestic violence during COVID-19, with two-thirds saying the attacks started or became worse during the pandemic according to a survey by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

It is widely accepted that technology offers tremendous potential for good, epitomised by the key role it has played in helping humanity sustain community in a self-isolating, COVID-19 world. With technologists innovating ceaselessly, we can choose from an ever-growing range of products that improve our daily lives and cater to our needs. This is particularly evident in the home, where technology is used to safeguard us, ease our routines and enrich our experiences.

Unfortunately, even well-meaning applications and devices are being manipulated to cause real-world harm. Those same technologies that connect and protect us are being exploited by abusers to exert an unprecedented level of control over their victims.

An IBM UK initiative has been looking into the impact of technology-facilitated abuse. They have seen that this tactic is prevalent in domestic violence, particularly coercive control – a pattern of dominating behaviour aimed at instilling fear and compliance in a victim.

The forms of technology-facilitated abuse are numerous, but perhaps the most insidious is when applications designed with the best of intentions are 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 control and continuously monitor a partner’s spending.

Coercive control resistant design

Technology-facilitated abuse is a challenging issue, with no easy answer to ending it. However, by making subtle decisions – balancing intended with unintended consequences – it is possible to design technology to be resistant to it.

In May, I published an IBM Policy Lab paper titled ‘Five Technology Principles to Combat Domestic Abuse’ with actionable recommendations to will help create products that can resist malicious manipulation. The team also published an in-depth paper for technologists on Coercive Control Resistant Design. By sharing this set of design principles, IBM aims to provide the tools and knowledge for improving the usability, security, and privacy of new technologies – making technology inherently safer.

Call to action

Few of us in the technical community intentionally create technology to cause harm, but we may be disconnected from the unintended effects of our creations. By building technology with an eye towards making it resistant to abuse, our creations will harness innovation while limiting unforeseen consequences – shaping lives and society for the better.

About IBM Policy Lab

The IBM Policy Lab is a forum providing policymakers with a vision and actionable recommendations to harness the benefits of innovation while ensuring trust in a world being reshaped by data. As businesses and governments break new ground and deploy technologies that are positively transforming our world, we work collaboratively on public policies to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

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