Thinking Critically About Domestic Violence Offender Registries

Every year, somewhere in the country there is a proposal for a Domestic Violence Offender Registry. These proposals would create a publicly accessible database to list individuals who have been convicted of violent domestic violence crimes. The goal is for the registry to be a tool for prevention and accountability.

We don’t see that potential in a registry, however. What we do see are a list of unintended and harmful consequences for victims and their children. The following is a brief description of those concerns:

  • False Sense of Security: In actual implementation of a registry, only a very small percentage of abusers would ever be listed, meaning that the database would significantly underrepresent the number of individuals who are abusive and could potentially pose a threat to others. Domestic violence is a seriously underreported crime and few abusers ever enter the criminal justice system in the first place. Of those who are arrested, many are not convicted. Of those convicted, many plea down or are initially only facing a charge that would not require their listing in the registry. This is because most proposals plan to only include offenders convicted of violent felonies; and many proposals suggest including those convicted of three or more felonies related to domestic violence.
  • Privacy Concerns:  Due to the nature of intimate relationships in domestic violence cases, it is often impossible to publicly identify the offender without identifying the victim and their children. In a survey conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 60% of victims reported that they had not contacted police due to concerns for their privacy. Unfortunately, being identified as a victim can come with some social stigmas and can impact employment or housing options.
  • Barrier to Contacting 911: In addition to being concerned for their own privacy, many victims do not want a public wall of shame as an accountability option. They want the abuse to stop, but they may not want the abuser to be humiliated or for their family to feel exposed. They may also be concerned with an increase in safety risks if the abuser losing their job or is shamed due to the registry.
  • Safety Concerns: The registry idea is premised on the assumption that if someone found their intimate partner or love interest in the database, they can end the relationship and prevent themselves from being a victim. However, the most dangerous time for women and their children is when they attempt to leave or have left an abusive partner. The risk of assault, stalking, and homicide all increase at this time and it’s critical that individuals have the support and resources they need to separate from a partner safely.
  • Unnecessary Use of Funds:  Most states already make criminal records publicly available. Considering the limited scope of the proposals and who would be included, most of those records are already accessible.
  • Inclusion of Victim’s Names: Unfortunately, victims are sometimes arrested after they call for help. This may be because they fought back in self-defense or because both parties were arrested.  Regardless, including victims’ names in a registry discourages them from calling for help, has many harmful consequences, and undermines the fundamental purpose of the database.
  • Tool for Victim-Blaming: Domestic violence is an issue that is consistently minimized and misunderstood. Our societal responses continually look to victims to explain the behavior of the abuser, rather than truly trying to hold the offender accountable. Is it inevitable that with the existence of a registry, there will be questions posed to victims: Why didn’t you check the registry? Why didn’t you leave? Abusers tell convincing stories to rationalize, minimize, or excuse their prior behavior; and their charming personalities convince not just their intimate partners, but everyone around them. If we stop believing the myths that it’s extremely easy to accuse someone of a domestic violence crime they didn’t commit and that abusive behavior can be caused by alcoholism, we may start to believe victims and then look to the abuser for true accountability. Until we do that, a registry will only add to the current victim-blaming culture.

Arguments for a registry can be compelling and seemingly logical. They can also be deeply emotional when questioning whether its existence could have prevented a tragic homicide. Overall, the limitations of any registry to actually include every individual who has been violently abusive means there is a significant chance that it would not have been preventative and that it still will not be in the future. We do need preventative measures to address domestic violence, but they need to truly address the root causes of domestic violence, provide support to victims, and encourage people to contact help when they need it. 

Smartphone Encryption: Protecting Victim Privacy While Holding Offenders Accountable

The last few months have seen heated debates between law enforcement and technology companies over the issue of smartphone encryption. The government has argued that encrypted devices and new technologies make it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate crimes while technology companies claimed that weakening encryption weakens security for everyone. Currently, Congress is drafting a bill that would require technology companies to make encrypted data readable, and several state legislatures have introduced legislation to block the sale of encrypted smartphones

At the core of the encryption debate is the concept of privacy and technology security. Technology nowadays – in particular the smartphone – collect and store an unprecedented amount of private information, including personal health data, access to online accounts (such as social media and email), videos and pictures, and so much more. Some of this information can be especially private and something a user may not want others – a friend or family member, an abusive partner, or an employer – to know about. For those individuals, the security on their smartphone can enhance or strip away that privacy.

Through the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, we have been addressing the intersection of technology and violence against women for over 15 years, and have trained more than 80,000 victim advocates, police officers, technologists, and other practitioners. In looking at how technology can be misused to facilitate stalking and harassment and how survivors can use their technology to attain safety, privacy is a recurring and fundamental component.

For victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, privacy and data security are integrally connected to their safety. A survivor’s smartphone is their lifeline; yet their smartphone can also be incredibly vulnerable to misuse by an abuser. A survivor’s smartphone is often one of the first things an abuser will target simply because of the amount of information on there. If they can compromise the victim’s smartphone, they have access to all phone calls, messages, social media, email, location information, and much more. For these reasons, smartphone security and encryption is essential to safeguarding the privacy of victims’ personal information.

The other side of the encryption debate is the ability for law enforcement to hold offenders accountable, which is something we also strongly support. When abusers misuse technology to threaten and terrorize, investigators can trace the digital trail to discover and prove who committed the crime. An encrypted smartphone makes it more difficult for law enforcement to access information on that phone if the owner is unwilling or unable to unlock it.

While law enforcement should not be impeded in their ability to investigate a crime, it’s important to recognize that smartphone encryption does not prevent law enforcement from doing an investigation of technology-facilitated domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. In these types of crimes, the goal of the perpetrator is to wield power and control over the victim by controlling the victim’s technology, harassing the victim through messages or phone calls, monitoring their activity, or disseminating harmful and devastating rumors about the victim. It is often an interaction between the victim and perpetrator through a third party, and digital evidence or proof of this harassment and abuse could exist elsewhere: on the victim’s own devices or an online platform (Facebook, email, etc.).

There may be circumstances in which evidence only exists on the perpetrator’s device. This could be the case in a sexual assault, for example, in which the perpetrator recorded or took videos of the assault on his/her device and has not yet shared them or posted them publicly. In situations such as this, unless the videos or photographs were uploaded online or backed up, the evidence may not be anywhere but on the perpetrator’s smartphone.

In most cases, however, it is possible for law enforcement to successfully investigate and build a domestic violence and sexual assault case without needing the perpetrator’s smartphone. For example, evidence of harassment via emails, texts, or social media will also exist on other technology platforms. If the abuser purchased monitoring software or is tracking the victim through a paid service, there might be financial records. In some cases, the survivor may have access to some of the evidence that might be needed. While survivors should never be in the position of having to investigate their own crimes, they are often in the best position to know what’s happening, and they should be involved and part of the process.

Balancing Victim Privacy and Offender Accountability

Ultimately, for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, the smartphone encryption issue comes down to balancing victim privacy and offender accountability. Both are equally important but neither should be compromised for the other. Victim privacy is fundamental to victim safety, and the technologies survivors use should have the most security and encryption possible.

It’s also important to recognize that weakening smartphone encryption to allow law enforcement access means weakened encryption—period. If an abuser is technologically savvy or is in law enforcement, their victim may have less privacy and security on their smartphones. There is no professional immunity to those who commit violence against women, and perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence work in all fields, including technology companies and law enforcement agencies.

We believe it is possible for law enforcement to investigate technology-facilitated domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking crimes, without compromising victim privacy through weakened smartphone encryption. Law enforcement, federal funders, technology companies, and the victim advocate community need to come together to figure out how to support survivors and help them be safe while also holding offenders accountable.

Instead of finding ways to get around smartphone encryption, law enforcement agencies deserve and need far more resources to investigate crimes facilitated through technology. Law enforcement should be given more information and tools so they not only know how technology is misused to facilitate crime, but all the different places where the evidence could exist, and the proper process and method on gathering this evidence. A good, thorough investigation of technology-facilitated domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking goes beyond examining a perpetrator’s encrypted smartphone.

At our annual Technology Summit, we ensure that there are sessions geared specifically for law enforcement professionals, so they can take this knowledge back to their communities. We’ve worked with other national organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, to develop articles to share this knowledge with law enforcement. Despite 15 years of addressing this issue, however, we still hear from survivors and their advocates that thorough investigation of technology-facilitated crimes is not happening consistently across the country. Rather than proposing legislation requiring access to encrypted data on a smartphone or banning encrypted smartphones, we encourage legislators and advocacy groups to look at what is actually needed to fully investigate these crimes and to truly address what law enforcement can do to hold offenders accountable.

New & Updated Resources on Facebook Privacy & Safety

We recently had the exciting opportunity to collaborate with Facebook on their international roundtables on Women’s Online Safety and were able to participate in three of these events in Washington, DC, Hyderabad, India, and New York City. The roundtables featured leading voices from many of the nation’s gender based violence (GBV) organizations as well as government representatives from various countries.

The roundtables were devised to create space for GBV organizations to contribute to the broader conversation on how Facebook in particular can engage the voices of women and create a safer environment for women to use the platform without fear of harassment and threats.  The goals of the roundtables were:

  1. To share existing Facebook tools women can use to help with privacy and safety.
  2. To share innovations Facebook is currently working on to improve the user experience. 
  3. To hear concerns from the field on what users are experiencing. 
  4. To create a network for GBV organizations to foster continuous conversations and provide a support structure for women users. 

The roundtables included conversations around Facebook’s Real Name Policy. Facebook has strongly backed their long-standing policy for users to be authentically identified by their real names. This policy also minimizes the ability for abusers and perpetrators to hide behind fake accounts and increases the likelihood that abusers misusing the platform to harass, threaten, or stalk a person can be held accountable. The policy has received some push-back, however, and Facebook addressed the various steps they have taken to allow some flexibility for individuals who are going by a different name in their everyday lives than their legal name.

All of the meetings discussed counter speech, which is used to combat negative comments posted on an account. By using counter speech, users can ask their audiences to post positive comments and help manage some of the negative, threatening, and harassing comments they are receiving.

During the roundtables, Facebook and Safety Net introduced the new Guide to Staying Safe on Facebook. This guide is a condensed version of the Privacy & Safety on Facebook: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse, providing short and concise tips on privacy and safety settings. Both resources can be found in our Privacy & Safety on Facebook page of the blog.

The roundtables were an incredible success. We appreciate the opportunity Facebook provided for global GBV organizations to convene and share their concerns. We will continue to foster collaborations between technology companies, government organizations, and non-profits to help eradicate violence against women in all forms, including in online spaces. To learn more about the roundtables and all of the great topics discussed, visit #HerVoice. Also, check out our video series on Facebook Privacy, Security and Safety!

Technology Summit 2016 Registration Open

Registration for the 4th Annual Technology Summit is now open! Please join us for an exciting 3-day conference centering on the intersection of technology and domestic violence. Covering a wide range of technology-related issues that will be helpful to advocates, law enforcement, and legal professionals who work with survivors of abuse. National experts on these issues will be presenting, sharing their knowledge and expertise. We look forward to seeing you there!

Dates & Location

The summit will be held at the Hilton Financial District in San Francisco, CA near Chinatown from July 25-27, 2016. On July 28, 2016, we will hold an exclusive day-long meeting, which is open only for NNEDV state coalition members and tech advocates.

OVW Approval

We are happy to share that OVW has approved the following grantees to use their training travel funds to attend Safety Net’s Technology Summit.

Grantees from the OVW's Campus, CLASSP, Disabilities, LAV, Rural, State Coalition, and Underserved Grant Programs have been conditionally approved to attend this conference. Grantees from the aforementioned programs are required to contact their OVW program specialist to get approval specific to their award and to ensure that a Grant Adjustment Notice (GAN) is issued. A GAN must be completed before grantees expend any funds related to attending this conference.

Grantees from Transitional Housing, Justice for Families, Improving Criminal Justice Responses to Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence (formerly the Arrest Program) and STOP programs may be invited to attend this conference and do not have to contact OVW for prior approval.  STOP sub grantees need approval from their STOP State Administrator.  Grantees that are not required to get prior approval to attend this conference should be advised to place a “memo to the file” in their grant records indicating the conference approval reference number.

The reference number for this conference is OVW-2016-MU-007. This number must be used by grantees when requesting approval via a GAN or in their “memo to the file.” This approval and assigned reference number is for this conference only.   

Cost for Attending

The registration fee includes full access to all training sessions, light receptions, and related events as well as continental breakfast (lunch and dinner is not included).   

Early Bird Registration: $400

Standard Registration: $475


Please register to attend by clicking this link.

Check out last year’s program book for more information! 

Celebrating Data Privacy Day – Ask Before You Post

January 28th is internationally recognized as Data Privacy Day. This day began as, and continues to be, a way to create awareness about the importance of privacy and protecting personal information—a crucial component of survivors’ safety.

Obtaining privacy over personal data can seem almost impossible in today’s digital age. A significant amount of our lives is online, and even our offline activities seem to emerge online… somehow, whether we want it to or not. I gave a presentation recently and the organizers took photos and posted them in a public photo album that included my full name. But this is not an isolated event, this has happened several times in my work. During another presentation, attendees were tweeting out my quotes followed by my full name. At no point was I asked for my permission. It becomes my responsibility to actively reach out and communicate any privacy needs. It’s usually just assumed that people are ok with sharing their lives on the web. This is unfortunate. For survivors of abuse, whose privacy is directly linked to their safety, staying on top of what people and companies do with their personal information can be downright exhausting.

We need to shift our collective thinking around data and privacy. Just because it can be online, does not mean that it should be. People often feel bad or uncomfortable asking others to remove online posts or requesting basic information about privacy policies. It’s time to flip the narrative on this. It’s ok to share privacy needs and requests. It’s ok to ask for content to be removed. Privacy is critical to safety for survivors, but survivors shouldn’t have to disclose safety concerns for their privacy to be considered or taken seriously. If we approach this from a privacy-first framework, we can actually start protecting privacy instead of chasing after it.

We’ve all heard tips about protecting our own privacy. That list is everywhere. Let’s celebrate Data Privacy Day differently this year - let’s consider some steps we can take to protect other people’s privacy. If we can create this shift in culture, our own privacy will also be more protected.  

1.       Ask before you post pictures of, or content about, other people.
Not everyone wants their information or images online - Or maybe they don’t care if it’s shared with a limited audience, but prefer that it not have a public audience. You can never assume. Even your selfie-obsessed friend deserves privacy.

2.       Ask before you post pictures of, or content about, other people’s kids.
I know this one can be hard. I mean, do they not see how adorable their kid is? Or how adorable my kid is sitting next to their kid? Privacy over cuteness, people. We have to get our priorities straight.

3.       Think before you share something that was sent to you and ask for permission.
Just because someone shared it with you or on their Facebook page, doesn’t mean they want it shared with everyone you know.

4.       If you run a business or organization website or social media site – ask before you post content that is personally identifying.
Even better, create policies and practices around how you ensure full consent.

Do you see a pattern here? Asking before sharing is the fundamental part of ensuring that people are in control of their privacy. It’s easy to think that we’re all just a needle in a haystack and wonder what issue could possibly come from a simple post or tag. But we live in a world of search engines and even if your page doesn’t have many followers, that content can pop up with a simple Google search. Changing how we treat other people’s information will transform our own privacy risks in the future. Join us in creating a culture of respect and consent in regards to privacy.

Erica Olsen
Deputy Director, Safety Net Project 

Tech Tips for the Holidays


This holiday season, I hope you get lots of presents! Or at least one thing you really want. If one of those pressies is a brand new technology device – say the newest iPhone, Kindle Fire, or tablet – here are some security and privacy tips.

Linked Account(s)

Many devices are associated with some kind of account.  You may have to create a new account or link an email address to the device.  Make sure you know whose account it’s linked to—preferably yours. Choose a username or email and password that only you will know.  

Go Through the Settings

This can be a bit boring (so grab some hot chocolate or eggnog), but spend some time going through the settings. Not only will this help you learn all the options and features on your brand new tech device, it also allows you to see what kind of security and privacy controls you have.

Was it Used?

I love hand-me-downs! But when it comes to tech, it’s important to make sure that all previous accounts and data have been removed. Do a full reset of the device to delete everything and get it to factory settings. Not sure how to do it? Just google “How to reset [your device name here].”

Go Through the Apps

Most smart devices allow you to download apps or additional software onto the device. Make sure you know what’s on there, especially if someone else set it up for you. If you come across an app that you know you won’t use or aren’t sure about, consider deleting it.

Update Passwords

If you asked someone else to set up anything up for you (the service, account, apps, etc.), and you gave them your username/passwords, consider changing your passwords afterwards. Yes, the holiday season is all about giving – but this doesn’t apply to your passwords and privacy! So remember that even if someone is nice enough to gift you with a fun device, it’s yours, not theirs.

We hope you all have fabulous holidays with lots of good cheer & yummy food!

~ Safety Net Team

Safe Surfing 101: Internet Browser Privacy Settings

Internet browsers—Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Apple Safari— are the entryway to the internet. They are also one of the first steps you can take to increase your privacy while online. Each of these browsers has built-in privacy features and settings that can minimize how much of your online activity someone else can see.

So, you’d rather not have your roommates know that you’ve been working out to Richard Simmons videos (it’s ok, we’re not judging!), or maybe you want to hide your engagement ring searches from your girlfriend. Perhaps you want to be able to privately search for information on domestic violence, dating abuse, or stalking without your partner knowing. These are all valid reasons why you’d want your internet browsing to be private. Particularly, for victims of abuse, in-browser privacy settings can help increase your privacy and safety.

We have a new handout that breaks down in-browser privacy settings for commonly used browsers. The steps in the handout may be slightly different depending on which version of the browser you’re using or what device you’re accessing it from, but it should still help point you in the right direction. Some of the most important in-browser settings to be aware of are the ones that allow you to manage what online searches and activity remain visible in your browser history. You may choose to use the private browsing mode to visit websites without any of that activity being logged in the browser history. You can also choose to go into your browser history and delete selected webpages or searches from the history so they will no longer be visible. For survivors of abuse, these tools can be critical to safety and privacy if an abuser is monitoring the computer/device activity by going through the browser history on the device. It’s important to note that in-browser privacy settings will not prevent someone from seeing your computer or device activity if they are using a spyware monitoring product. If you believe that your activity is being remotely monitored by someone, use another device to access information that you wouldn’t want them to see.

Check out the Steps to Increasing Browser Privacy handout for more information.

Safe Surfing! 

Stop. Think. Connect.

The internet is such a big part of our lives. We bank, shop, watch movies, read the news, play games, and do a lot more. We also share a lot about ourselves online, whether it’s letting Sephora (and every online targeted advertiser) know that you're currently looking for the perfect lipstick (which I found, by the way!) or sharing selfies of said perfect lipstick on Facebook. The internet knows a lot about us – just Google yourself. You might be surprised at how well-known you actually are.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month as well as National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM). For survivors of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault, online security and safety is imperative; but it’s also important for everyone. One of the theme for NCSAM is STOP. THINK. CONNECT. Before you connect online, stop, and think about your privacy and security. Who’s going to see that selfie on Facebook? Is your connection secure when you type in your credit card information on Sephora’s website? (Tip: Check your Facebook privacy settings, and make sure you’re using an HTTPS connection when sharing sensitive financial information.)

To honor Domestic Violence Awareness Month and National Cyber Security Awareness Month, we’ve put together a series of videos on Online Privacy & Safety. Below is today’s video, and for the next four days, we’ll be releasing a new video in this series (check back here daily or follow NNEDV on social media to see them all!). They’re short and sweet, and we hope they will be helpful.

·        Online Privacy & Safety - Introduction

·        Creating an Account

·        Security Settings

·        Privacy Settings

·        Facebook Privacy, Security & Safety

Meanwhile, if you want more tips on surfing the internet safely, check out:

“Online Privacy & Safety” section in our Technology Safety & Privacy: A Toolkit for Survivors

National Cyber Security Awareness Month’s Tips

3 Simple Questions To Determine Which Safety App is Right for You

Many apps on the market have been specifically designed to help users communicate their safety needs in an emergency. These are referred to as safety apps and they use the cell phone’s location, text messages, alarms, video/camera features, and other alert options.

As more of these safety apps become available, one of the questions we get a lot is: "Which safety app should I use?" And we wish we can say: "Use this one!" However, we can’t because which app you choose depends on a lot of things. In fact, we wrote a handout on things to consider when selecting a safety app. Still, many people ask us: "But can’t you just tell me which one to use?" To narrow it down, we’ve created 3 simple questions to get you started.

What do you want the safety app to do?

Do you want an easy way to notify your friends or family if you’re in danger? Would you prefer to connect with authorities in an emergency? Or are you looking for basic information about domestic violence or resources local to you that can help? Most apps have a different purposes and determining what you want is the first step.

Does the app meet your needs?

Is the app easy to use or make it easier for you to do something? Remember, the purpose of an app is to make life easier. If it actually makes it harder for you to do something, then just stick with what’s easiest. It might be faster to call your friend than to find the app among all the other apps on your phone, find the right screen, tap it three times, darn—tapped the wrong area, tap again, only for it to send a cryptic message that might confuse your friend.

Does the app truly do what it says it will?

This is where you should test the app to see if it works the way it says it will. For example, some apps will send your location to your safety contacts if you’re in danger. Test it. Did it do that? Was the location accurate? This step is critical if you’re using a safety app for communicating in a potential emergency. Test this app with friends and family before you’re in danger and with friends and family who uses different types of devices. Some apps work more accurately on one platform versus another.

These three questions will get you started in determining if it’s the right app for you. Of course, if you’re a survivor or someone who is concerned about your privacy and want to be thorough, check out our handout on Choosing & Using Apps: Considerations for Survivors. But if that’s tl;dr, start with these 3 questions.

You can also read our reviews on select apps too. We’ve downloaded them and tested them, and we offer a pretty thorough assessment on each of them. Ultimately, however, whether an app is right for you is up to you. (Just make sure it works and that it’s what you want!)

Increasing Privacy: Opt Out of Schools Sharing Kid’s Information

Did you know that most public schools can share what is called “Directory Information” about students with ANY third party who requests it? Directory Information can include an array of details about a student, including age, date of birth, address, height, weight, email address, photos, clubs they belong to, and other school-related details. This information can be released to anyone who asks for it, including marketers, information brokers (who collect and sell personal information), predators, or abusers. This can be a privacy and safety concern, especially for survivors of violence. Many survivors of violence relocate with their children and are diligent at maintaining their privacy to keep their personal information and location unknown to the abuser.

Survivors need to know that this information can be shared and know how to opt out so they can minimize the risks of abusers tracking them or attempting to contact the children directly. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allows parents to opt their children out of Directory Information.

Unfortunately, the window to opt out is short; sometimes just a week or two when school first starts. Many schools will also require that families opt out each school year. As school starts again this year, ask your children’s school about opting out of Directory Information. Parents can also ask schools if they have internal policies to limit who may request and access Directory information and advocate for the creation of those policies if they don’t exist.

For more information about this issue, visit World Privacy Forum’s Student Privacy 101 Series, check out the World Privacy Forum’s #OptOutKids Campaign, and watch their YouTube video.