Last week, federal judge Esther Salas issued this wrenching statement following the murder of her son by a man who came to her home looking to kill her. The murderer found her home address, the address of her church, and had what she called a “dossier” of information on her that he’d found online.
Salas is no doubt referring to the hundreds of data broker sites that collect and publish your personal information, from your current and former home addresses, to the names of your spouse, parents, siblings, and children. They also publish your phone numbers, used today to verify your ownership of key accounts, your social media account names, and email addresses. While many of these sites offer only partial information for free, the costs to full access are nominal, and it’s easy enough to cross-reference and verify with any information you may already have, or with other reverse phone lookup and email address sites, and against the social media offered up by yourself, your friends and family.
Sometimes these tools can be used for good-ish reasons; when I was a PYT, I researched any would-be internet suitors to ensure I wasn’t about to go on a date with a Republican. Some of the federal law enforcement I trained used these tools to track major drug operations throughout the US. But these tools are also used to stalk, harass, terrify and physically harm. God bless her, Judge Salas asks that we restrict the information these services can maintain on an individual, but is careful to limit that restriction to federal judges for the sake, as she says, of truly blind justice. I completely agree, and offer that federal judges are also supposed to be protected by the US Marshals Service. What then for the rest of us?
Data brokers, of course, are just the danger we see. Truth told, the technology we use every day is a perfect setup for violence to thrive. The point of nearly every piece of technology we use today - from smart thermostats to watches, phones, cars, computers, TVs - is to collect user data to package up and sell. For example, Amazon, as a company, is barely profitable, and yet its CEO is quickly becoming a trillionaire.
For big tech companies, the data is the product. According to Shoshanna Zuboff, who coined the term surveillance capitalism, today’s technology and the data mining it’s built on “are designed to keep us ignorant” to not just the quantities of data but the value of it. While tech titans tiredly argue that data collection is the cost of innovation, let’s acknowledge that this model has backed us into a terrible corner: we couldn’t “just get off the internet” if we wanted to. Every aspect of life, from civic duties like filing taxes to health needs like telehealth appointments, according to Zuboff, “marches us through the same channels that are surveillance capitalism’s supply chains.”
Creating tech that disavows its role as steward of user data is troubling enough. But much of tech is built with absolutely no acknowledgement of the threats it introduces to the majority of us. Privacy threats in relationships, Karen Levy and Bruce Schneier argue, “are experienced much more frequently—and often with greater direct impact on victims’ lives—than many of the threats that dominate the security discussion.” Using intimate knowledge about you, it’s a lot easier to get into your accounts and devices, map and follow your friends and colleagues, see who you live with, and change the settings on your home thermostat. As Levy and Schneier point out, these threats can lead to loss of “valuable or personal data,” financial fraud, and “...physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.”
Even if they’re acknowledged, these threats are still undervalued. Last month, a tech firm reached out to us to ask if we’d link to their phishing research; when we pointed out that their reverse phone lookup tool, which allowed for phone number monitoring, could be used in an intimate partner violence situation, they replied that the greater good was that more people knew about their phishing research. When it was pointed out that Social Mapper, a facial recognition tool created to help good, white-hat hackers, can be used to stalk your face across social platforms, it’s makers essentially just shrugged.
As Salas points out, the free flow of information on the internet - and I would add the tech it’s built on and that we use to access it - has the potential to cause great individual harms. For all our veneration of free speech in the US, we don’t seem willing to apply that freedom universally; if you are just as concerned about speaking your mind freely as you are that it doesn’t mean a crazed lunatic could come shooting through your front door, then your speech isn’t free. Speech that doesn’t consider safety is, at best, a thought exercise. But that’s a whole other post.
Ok, so now what do I do?
First, evaluate where your personal information lives online. If you have a weird name like mine (that you insist on keeping although your married partner has a common-as-hell name) then chances are good you're easily detectable online. Start by Google-ing yourself, with your name in quotes, i.e., “Shauna Dillavou”.
If you’re ready to dive into the data broker sites, suit up. Start with our opt-out guide; let us know if you run across sites that we don’t have listed, as new sites pop up like zits under a COVID mask. If you’re concerned about your home address being too available online, you may want to check out our list of address confidentiality programs available by state. See our resources page for both and our evergreen to-do list.
There are a handful of other tools we don’t share publicly. If you’re interested in more about searching yourself, hiding your addresses, locking down your social media, or preventing fraud, reach back to me.
Also, check out our friends’ work. While some sources (and ours) may say they’re geared to women, they’re open to anyone of any gender who feels they need help.
Games and online harassment hotline. Anita Sarkeesian’s newest project helps folks with text-based support for harassment.
The Tech Safety Net Project. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has tons of resources from safety planning to securing devices that are aimed specifically at intimate privacy threats.
DIY Online Safety Guide. Chayn’s work is available in several languages and has a global approach.