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Encryption 18 December 2020

How Strong Encryption Can Protect Survivors of Domestic Violence

By Anna HigginsFormer Project Coordinator and Policy Advisor

For many of us in quarantine, our only privacy often comes in the form of digital communications. While we’re cooped up in our homes with other people, the online world can be a place to blow off steam, find distractions, and even seek refuge. This is especially true for survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, and trafficking, who have historically relied on encrypted communications to find support and an escape.

This year has been particularly hard for survivors. Factor in spiking COVID-19 cases, the long slog of sheltering in place, economic uncertainty, and, in some regions, colder weather and shorter days – plus December and January holidays, which traditionally see an uptick in  domestic violence incidents – and you have a perfect storm. Access to private online communication isn’t just a way to find support and escape, but a means of survival.

With the risk of domestic violence higher now, it is even more essential that we protect survivors’ privacy and safety online. In a pandemic, survivors may only be able to rely on digital communications for help, to limit in-person interactions.

This is why we worked with the National Network to End Domestic Violence to put together a factsheet on why encryption matters to survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, and trafficking.

Survivors need to communicate with trusted confidantes, get in touch with organizations that can provide help, and search for shelters or other resources in their area. End-to-end encryption ensures that survivors can trust the confidentiality and integrity of their private conversations and use digital communications to reach safety.

Encryption also helps to protect survivors’ personal information and safety. After escaping an abusive situation, they might relocate and seek new housing or employment. It is essential to keep personal information private in this situation because leaving an abusive household is the most dangerous time for survivors; survivors are significantly more likely to get killed while leaving or after having just left. However, abusers can use technology and digital communications to find more information about a survivor’s whereabouts and activities. Without strong encryption, offenders can continue to abuse a survivor through digital methods like installing spyware.

Encryption is also important for preserving evidence in the case of legal action. If a survivor decides to press charges and move through on a court case, digital evidence is essential. Without encryption, there could be a loss of evidence. Survivors deserve to seek justice and find peace, and maintaining evidence is an important component of the legal process.

End-to-end encryption is a critical tool to help ensure that survivors can stay safe every step of the way as they seek help, new living conditions, and potential legal action. It protects digital communications, information, and records, and it prevents abusers and bad actors from furthering abuse.

We must protect end-to-end encryption if we want to protect survivors.

For more information on how survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, and trafficking can seek help, check out the National Network to End Domestic Violence and their Safety Net Project, which focuses on technology safety.

Read “Understanding Encryption: The Connections to Survivor Safety

Image by Sergey Zolkin via Unsplash


Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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