Cornell Tech clinic to help intimate violence victims

The Computer Security Clinic for Victims of Intimate Partner Violence will help survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) determine whether their abusers are using technology as a tool to harm them, Cornell Tech announced Oct. 22.

The clinic was founded by an interdisciplinary research team at Cornell Tech, with collaborators from Cornell’s Ithaca campus and New York University. 

“By studying and creating software tools for victims, the IPV clinic can help reduce widespread abuse enabled by smartphones,” said Deborah Estrin, the Robert V. Tishman ’37 Professor and associate dean for impact at Cornell Tech. “This kind of research, centered around public-interest tech and impact, is core to Cornell Tech's mission in New York City.”

The misuse of smartphone technology, social media and other aspects of digital life by abusive spouses and partners has become an increasingly urgent problem in the United States. Since 2016, a group of researchers at Cornell Tech and Cornell’s Ithaca campus has been documenting how abusers can misuse technology to track and harass others. At the same time, the group has been running the Computer Security Clinic, which works directly with IPV survivors in partnership with the New York City Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender Based Violence.

“We’re proud to build on our award-winning research on how to combat technology-enabled abuse, which can be so daunting for survivors,” said Nicola Dell, assistant professor at Cornell Tech and the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, and co-lead of the research team. “Too often, technology places power in the hands of the perpetrator rather than the victim.”

The research team has previously investigated and catalogued smartphone apps – often described as “spyware” or “stalkerware” – that can enable stalking and abusive monitoring. It has also created a special software tool to detect such apps and helped prompt tech companies to update antivirus programs to flag them. In August, the team published a study detailing an approach to providing hands-on tech help to survivors.

Sarah St. Vincent

The clinic’s founding director will be Sarah St. Vincent, who has conducted research on privacy and surveillance at Human Rights Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology. St. Vincent will oversee the clinic’s growth, help tackle the fundamental causes of tech-enabled abuse and promote broader reforms citywide and beyond.

“Privacy is power, and I’m delighted to have joined a team of technology experts that’s dedicated to empowering abuse survivors,” said St. Vincent, who also worked with IPV survivors in the United Kingdom. “Everyone has the right to safety both online and offline, and we will be strengthening that right every day.”

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Lindsey Knewstub