Chapter 2: Overview of a Technology Abuse Clinic
This chapter provides a broad introduction to technology abuse clinics, including essential features that comprise a technology abuse clinic, overarching principles that guide the design and management of a technology abuse clinic, and an overview of secondary initiatives that have emerged from existing technology abuse clinics. While these secondary initiatives are not prerequisites for a technology abuse clinic, we introduce them here as stakeholders may want to consider such secondary initiatives during the planning phases of a new clinic.
In this chapter, we cover:
Why technology abuse clinics?
Technology abuse is often poorly understood and multi-faceted, with individual survivors suffering from multiple types of technology-based harm (see Helping With Tech Abuse). While many written guides and apps exist for addressing technology abuse, sifting through these resources to decide which are relevant and trustworthy is an insurmountable burden for many survivors and advocates.
Clinical approaches arose out of the observation that survivors benefit from human-mediated, 1:1 support with technology issues. Unlike other technology help services aimed at the general public, technology abuse clinics are tailored to the dynamics of coercive control and in providing trauma-informed services. Technology abuse clinics complement, but do not replace, other kinds of IPV resources, such as legal aid services, housing services, healthcare, and more.
A technology abuse clinic is a free consultative clinic that pairs technologists who are trained in the dynamics of coercive control with survivors experiencing technology abuse. Technologists assist survivors with identifying possible points of compromise on their device(s) and developing technology-specific safety plans.
While there is no one technology abuse clinic model, we consider a technology abuse clinic to have three essential features. A technology abuse clinic:
Communicates directly with the survivor-client, whether in person or remotely.
Offers one or more service(s) focused on providing redress for harms (potentially) incurred from technology abuse. Such services include but are not limited to: safety checks for devices and accounts, education, forensics, and expert testimony. (A clinic does not need to provide all of these services.)
Tailors services to the individual survivor with the intervention situated in their context of abuse.
The final feature is crucial, as it distinguishes a technology abuse clinic from the Apple 'Genius Bar' or other commercial tech helpdesk services. The above features are purposefully general, with the intention of fostering flexibility for the readers of this toolkit. Subsequent chapters provide insight on options for stakeholders to consider when designing a clinic and deciding which services to offer and how to offer them.
A technology abuse clinic lies at the intersection of victim advocacy and technical rigor. We structure the toolkit around five overarching principles that should guide the design and practice of a technology abuse clinic. These are applicable to any clinic design, regardless of which of the many variations that a technology abuse clinic may assume. We introduce these principles here, with more detail provided in later chapters:
Equitable: Strive to provide all survivors with equal access to the same quality of service. This requires considering the specific needs of survivors who are marginalized in some aspect of their (intersecting) identities, e.g., low-income, LGBTQ+, non-native English-speakers, etc.
Example: Interpreter services (and responsible use) for non-native speakers, identity affirming practices, Internet access, accessible handouts, and written materials across education levels.
Collaborative: Establish clearly defined and productive working relationships with community partners. Technology abuse clinics are one of a constellation of support services that survivors might need. Defining and respecting the clinic’s role in relation to other services within the constellation of community partners benefits the clinic, community partners, and survivors.
Example: Role delineation, a referral practice for other services, agreements for information sharing and record keeping
Community-centered: Account for the localized needs of the community that the technology abuse clinic will be serving.
Example: Transportation access, lack of anonymity and privacy within geographic or cultural communities, local/municipal laws.
Trauma-informed: Account for the trauma that survivors may have experienced and make active efforts to avoid retraumatization.
Example: Prioritizing the survivor’s wishes, needs, and well-being in all interactions (rather than offering prescriptive advice) to allow for agency in how survivors wish to respond to technology abuse.
Technologically rigorous: Give clear, accurate information about technology. Avoid misleading explanations or inciting unnecessary fear or doubt surrounding technology. Do not shy away from ambiguity and encourage survivors to feel comfortable with and empowered by technology, rather than isolated from what is now a central part of modern life.
Example: Normalizing self-education and explaining different levels of technical sophistication required for “hacking”.
These five principles have helped guide the work of existing technology abuse clinics, and we encourage stakeholders to frequently consider these principles at each phase or iteration of developing and facilitating a clinic.
Existing technology abuse clinics have also pursued secondary initiatives in addition to offering direct services to clients. These secondary initiatives illustrate how technology abuse clinics can serve to address both individual and structural gaps related to technology abuse. The secondary initiatives are informed by experiences gleaned from within the clinics, and serve to concretize and advance broader discussions about technology abuse in meaningful and impactful ways.
While the core services of technology abuse clinics center on the digital safety needs of individual survivors, these secondary initiatives seek to address systemic and structural issues related to technology abuse through research, education, training, and policy advocacy.
The Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA), housed at Cornell Tech in New York City, and the TECC Clinic, located in Seattle and housed by a community-based domestic violence agency, each support distinct academic research efforts. This research is classified as work with human subjects, and researchers at both clinics maintain an Institutional Review Board (IRB) ethics approval. Clients receiving services at either clinic may be asked for their consent to participate in data collection in service of these research efforts. However, at both clinics, survivors are informed that they will receive clinic services regardless of whether they agree to participate in research. Data gathered from these sessions have been used to analyze the efficacy of the clinics, identify common types of technology abuse scenarios, and inform development of protective tooling.
Two existing clinics are affiliated with universities, the Clinic to End Tech Abuse (CETA) at Cornell Tech and the Madison Tech Clinic (MTC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As part of their volunteer recruitment, both clinics recruit technologists from their respective computer and information science student populations. Volunteering at a technology clinic is an opportunity for community-engaged learning where students can gain first-hand experience and learn necessary skills for mitigating and preventing harms from technology, particularly with at-risk populations. Students can also be engaged as volunteer technology consultants (see Technology Consultants).
Technology Abuse Intervention & Prevention Training
Several existing clinics have found that it is common to receive requests for educational speaking engagements and/or to deliver trainings to enhance the knowledge of those who work professionally with or respond to survivors experiencing technology abuse (i.e., victim advocates, law enforcement, legal attorneys). For example, CETA regularly provides trainings for service providers, organizations, and victim advocates, while developers of the TECC Clinic have worked to standardize the integration of technology-specific safety planning into the core training provided to new victim advocates.
Policy and Legal Advocacy
Both CETA and the TECC Clinic use data gathered from their experiences running a technology abuse clinic to inform legal and policy advocacy. Some examples of policy efforts include:
State Senate Bill S2678 (2019-2020) which grants New York state residents the legal right to be released from a shared family phone or cable plan if they are experiencing IPV.
The Safe Connections Act, a federal version of the New York State bill regarding the right to leave phone plans.
Consulting with federal policymakers on legislation that would authorize funding for additional clinics
House Bill 1320 (2021), a bill in Washington state to modernize, harmonize and improve the efficacy and accessibility of laws concerning civil protection orders, including updating the civil definition of domestic violence to include (technology-enabled) coercive control and to standardize a process for including digital evidence of technology abuse into the court record.