Over the past 19 months, as work, school, and opportunities to socialize migrated online during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and advocates working in domestic violence prevention saw a precipitous drop in people reaching out for help. Stuck at home, sometimes with their abusers, people had little opportunity to seek assistance from the community spaces they might have, otherwise.
Technology offered a way to help, and researchers at Northeastern created ways for people experiencing domestic violence to send up a flag.
But in other cases, as technology advances, so too do opportunities for abusers to use it in threatening or violent ways.
Take, for example, the small location-tracking devices designed to help people find their keys, wallets, or TV remotes. Some are magnetic, some adhesive, and some designed to attach to a keychain, and all of them use some combination of geolocation and Bluetooth services to help someone track down their lost items.
But imagine how else these devices can be used, says Morgan Wilson, interim director of the Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern: Anyone who might want a relatively inexpensive, low-profile method for tracking someone else’s whereabouts now has a few options readily available.
An abuser could wedge the quarter-sized Apple AirTag in the folds of a victim’s car seat, or tuck a similarly-sized Tile fob into a teddy bear dressed up as a gift and instantly have a map of their whereabouts.
“These things that are meant to be convenient can end up being used for nefarious purposes,” says Wilson, who works closely with victims of domestic abuse to shore up their online and technological privacy.
And it’s not just hard technology that can be used in dangerous ways, but software, too, Wilson says.
Under the guise of sincerity, an abuser might give their victim a new smartphone or tablet, already set up to a wireless service and ready to go. But if the abuser is the administrator on the account for that service, they have direct access to personal information—including text messages and location information—shared on that device.
Wilson also notes that abusers can install computer software that logs keystrokes and other data, making victims’ passwords and security information susceptible to compromise. She recommends secure messaging platforms such as Signal, which encrypts messages and calls, and WhatsApp, which allows for disappearing messages.
“What we’re trying to do is raise awareness around what constitutes technology-facilitated abuse to make people mindful about how someone could flip technology to use it as a tool for abuse,” Wilson says.
The shift to life online meant that advocates and researchers in domestic violence prevention had to quickly establish ways to support victims in new ways, including developing relationships with hotel managers to fill empty rooms with people fleeing abuse.
The subsequent shift back to some semblance of normal, as vaccines become more widely available, has meant that many of those services are harder to come by—even as the issue of domestic violence still simmers, says Margo Lindauer, associate clinical professor of law and director of the Domestic Violence Institute.
And, she says, the pandemic has affected plenty of services that are often considered separate from those necessary to leave a violent relationship: Stable housing, access to childcare and employment, and opportunity for healthcare can all be essential for someone looking to leave an abusive environment.
“Even before the pandemic, traditional forms of service lagged behind the needs of people experiencing domestic abuse,” she says. “Now, services aren’t even open to the same capacity as they were two years ago, and the issue has not disappeared.”
In addition to the Domestic Violence Institute Legal Clinic, run by Lindauer and Wilson, Northeastern has several resources available to those who may be experiencing domestic abuse.
The Office of Prevention and Education at Northeastern, or OPEN, has a sexual violence resource center located at 407 Ell Hall, as well as information, frequently asked questions, and additional information about domestic violence. Students can also find information based on their location, including each of Northeastern’s domestic campuses, and internationally.
Support and therapy are also available through University Health and Counseling Services and Find@Northeastern. Staff are available to talk with students confidentially about their rights, resources, and options, and medical clinicians are also available to assess and treat any injuries.