This is the first time the issues of domestic violence and the murder of women in Israel have been given a technological focus. “Our goal is to take this issue forward, beyond primitive solutions,” Ben Ami says. “Michal’s murder raised a lot of questions. As I was doing my research, it became clear that when it comes to domestic violence, the treatment is way behind.”
Of course, tracking and stopping domestic violence with technology is trickier than it sounds. For one, the proliferation of smartphones and social media have made it easier for abusers to isolate, control, and surveil their victims. Diana Freed, a digital security and privacy researcher at Cornell who works with the Clinic to End Tech Abuse in New York, points to emergency apps as a potential dilemma. With these apps, which are hidden on the victim’s phone and can summon help with a tap of a button, “a challenge can be making sure the client has a safe device and is aware of the factor of security,” she says. “We’re always concerned about the safety of the client and what the abuser might know.”
At the clinic, which launched in 2019, women in the process of exiting dangerous relationships are offered a Tech Disconnect checklist, which ensures that no potentially harmful links to the ex-partner are left after a breakup, from a mutual Amazon account to a telltale phone bill. Freed says that such technological tethers are common even if someone moves miles away from their abuser.
On the other hand, technology provides domestic abuse victims with important tools that allow connection with loved ones and the authorities, from anonymous chat rooms to apps like Circle of 6, which quickly (with two screen taps) alerts a group of friends and family that the user needs help.
A Multipronged Approach
The Forum’s hackathon attempted to broaden the spectrum of support that technology can provide to domestic violence victims by dividing the different types of initiatives into three segments.
The first segment focused on prevention. Hackathon projects in this group tap into nationwide databases to search for signs of systemic, unreported abuse in the health care and education systems. One such example from the hackathon is MedFlag, an automated system that analyzes medical records to look for signs of repeated abuse among hospital and clinic patients.
Another segment is for utilities that can be used during life-threatening emergencies. Apps like Stay Tuned, one of the hackathon’s winners, equip abuse victims with ways of signaling an emergency that require even less effort than tapping one’s phone screen. Stay Tuned looks like an innocent recipe or news app, but when it’s open, it’s listening. Using voice recognition tech and machine intelligence, the app records alarming noises, saving them to the cloud in real time and notifying both the police and a list of predetermined personal contacts when the app detects domestic violence occurring. Another finalist, Safe and Sound, is an invisible app that is operated by voice recognition technology—the app recognizes a predetermined spoken code word, then alerts the user’s chosen contacts that help is needed.
Lastly, the hackathon’s third segment concentrated on apps that use technology to recognize events that can serve as warning signs of potential future violence—for example, when a jealous husband erases all of his wife’s male Facebook friends. Aware, a smartphone “violence detector,” takes this approach. It utilizes an algorithm that learns the phone owner’s daily usage patterns. Then, when unusual activity, presumably done by an abuser, is detected—such as a spyware app being installed or contacts being blocked—trustees chosen by the phone owner receive a text message explaining the risk and providing advice on the best ways to address the issue.
Mind the Gap
It’s impossible to talk about the use technology for good without taking into account the forces that make it less accessible: financial disparity, language barriers, and technological literacy. Not everyone owns a smartphone, has access to a reliable Wi-Fi connection, or knows how to navigate the web of apps, websites, and notifications in their everyday lives, let alone during a stressful emergency.