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Digital Autonomy: What It Means, Who Needs It, and How to Achieve It

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Digital autonomy is a slippery term that is usually applied to autonomous digital processes and research in that field. But there is another application for this phrase: the ability to use digital devices and communication channels with autonomy.

Many of us might stumble over this second usage because for a lot of us, our online freedom has never been under threat. Nor have most of us experienced a lack of digital autonomy.

For thousands of domestic violence survivors and victims though, controlling one’s own devices and passwords and the ability to move freely without being tracked, is not something to be taken for granted.

Technology-facilitated abuse is on the rise

While the means may change, abuse doesn’t. At its core, domestic or intimate partner violence is about power. The abusive individual seeks to control a partner through both physical and non-physical means.

As the 21st century saw a swift technological renaissance, and digital communication channels and GPS-assisted applications proliferated, so too did digitally controlling behavior.

Studies have shown that many domestic violence cases in the Western world now present with an element of cyber violence. The correlation between online and offline behavior is well examined and leads one to wonder how much abuse isn’t reported, and how much is flowing from the digital sphere outward.

Figures such as those from a 2015 international report, which found that just under three quarters of the women surveyed around the world have experienced some type of cyber abuse, also reveal that password control, hacking, and, interestingly, the purchasing of phones for victims were some of the means abusers use to gain control over devices.

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Regaining digital autonomy

Once an abusive person has control over their partner’s digital life, it can be very hard for the victim to regain autonomy. Hard, but not impossible. Tech safety, particularly for domestic violence survivors, becomes of the utmost importance.

Although tech provides potential channels for abuse, it also provides solutions. Websites such as Hack Blossom, a DIY cybersecurity resource for domestic violence victims and survivors, offer a “quick exit” button so that victims can swiftly leave the page when needed.

Groups which help women (victims and survivors are predominantly women) escape from violent homes do valuable work via the same technology which is used by abusers to coerce, manipulate, and control. Numerous guides and resources exist online, which people in precarious situations should access from a safe computer.

Other simple ways to secure devices and start regaining digital autonomy include:

  • Protecting and changing passwords. Choose passwords that are unique (don’t use them elsewhere) and contain a mix of numbers, special characters, and upper and lower-case letters.
  • Always opt for two-step verification when it is available.
  • Browse the web privately — this is particularly important if an abusive person is monitoring the history. Use the incognito browser mode, clear the cookies, and regularly delete browsing history.
  • Secure social media accounts by reviewing privacy settings, checking which apps have access to location tracking, and taking a good look at friends, followers, and connections — remove anyone who could be passing sensitive information to an abusive person.
  • Document any technology-facilitated abuse and back that data up in a secure, cloud-based server.
  • Start creating new, secret accounts. Make a new email address, preferably one that doesn’t require a phone number, and use that to reach out for help.
  • The Burner app generates new phone numbers, it’s useful for making phone calls in private. However, the app is visible on a phone (consider installing and then removing) and App store activity might be traced.
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Although we’ve focused more on women in this guide, digital autonomy is something all people, whether they are men or women, deserve. The freedom to use one’s devices and access content on the internet whenever and however one chooses is a freedom many of us take for granted. It’s also a freedom we would miss sorely if it was taken from us.

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