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Safety and confidentiality

Last edited: September 14, 2012

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Online communications must be planned and implemented with careful consideration and attention to maximizing safety to the extent possible. As with face-to-face counseling, online support should follow core guiding principles, which can be maintained by:

  • Providing information about the online process, the counsellor (including name, position, qualifications, and approach), the potential risks (e.g. potential miscommunications when using text-based forms of communication), benefits, safeguards, and alternatives (e.g. telephone counseling).
  • Conducting a risk assessment and reviewing a woman’s comfort using technology prior to providing online counseling.
  • Facilitating safety planning, involving the survivor’s own assessment of her risks.
  • Avoiding the use of online counseling in crisis situations, referring women to immediate and local face-to-face services in such cases.
  • Establishing practices for maintaining confidentiality, including agreement not to save, print, or forward verbatim communications.
  • Communicating the process and guidelines for online counseling in clear and simple terms.
  • Providing services using a feminist-based, non-judgmental and non-medical approach, building on the strengths and specific needs of the woman.
  • Ensuring that alternative options to online services (e.g. face to face counseling) are made available, should they be needed at any time during the provision of online counseling.
  • Establishing pre-scheduled times for online appointments (Shelternet, 2009a).

Toward this end, organizations must train service providers in the use of specific structured assessment approaches that address the range of safety factors for online services.

Organizations planning to provide online support should consider all means to increase the confidentiality of online communications through: encryption; authenticated passwords; and other security steps that assist them to respond to varied safety risks of survivors. For example, a special computer server may be used that protects against unauthorized access to information and deletes any traces of communication on the survivor’s computer (Fraser & Fribley, 2005).

Website Safety: Tips for Advocacy Organizations (National Network to End Domestic Violence Safetynet Project, 2009). This resource describes steps that can be taken by shelters and advocacy organizations to inform survivors about online safety risks such as computer monitoring and spyware. Based on the context in the United States, three basic steps are identified that organizations can take when working with survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. Available in English.

Organizations should gather information and develop a clear understanding of all government regulations and rules related to electronic communications between a counsellor or advocate and survivor. Advocates should also be aware of confidentiality risks inherent in the use of the relevant technologies so they can inform survivors about the risks, and change the mode of communication to other forms (e.g. help-line, face to face) if needed to manage these risks.


Case Study: Safety Net (United States)

The Safety Net Technology Project was founded in 2000 and implemented by the U.S. National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) in 2002 to change the face of advocacy by expanding the number of shelter advocates who can harness the power of modern technology to increase survivor safety and improving women’s knowledge of technology and its potential use by perpetrators. The overarching goals of the Project are to help those working to end violence against women safely use technology and hold offenders accountable for technology misuse. The project achieves these goals through training practitioners, shaping public policy, raising awareness, building the capacity of shelter staff and law enforcement, and advising technology developers and companies.

Training practitioners

Since 2000, the Safety Net Team has presented over 800 trainings to a wide range of audiences, reaching more than 52,000 advocates, law enforcement (including Federal Bureau of Investigation), university staff, and family court judges, youth, counselors, and others on high-technology stalking, data and Internet privacy, and using social media safely. Although primarily implemented in the United States, over 40 trainings have been conducted in other countries, such as Austria, Australia, Canada, England, Mexico, and Portugal, among others.

The project reaches thousands of people through an organized network of local shelters, state level experts, national and international networks. Through an annual training of trainers conference, education materials, and ongoing support throughout the year, the project builds the capacity of state and U.S. territory domestic violence coalitions and international shelter networks. Trained advocates use their newly-acquired technology knowledge to train service providers in their countries and communities. Member coalitions across the United States replicate the national Safety Net Project on a smaller scale in their local communities. Internationally, Canada and Australia are working closely with the NNEDV Safety Project to replicate and adapt this model.

Public policy advocacy

The Safety Net Project advocates for strong local, state, national, and international policies that ensure the safety, privacy and civil rights of all victims and survivors and to ensure perpetrators are held fully accountable for misusing technology to stalk and abuse. The project has shaped public policy in local communities, at the state and provincial level, and nationally. Through the work, survivors in the United States now have increased privacy protections in federal law, including the right to keep their personally identifying information from being shared with an abuser, law enforcement, the government, and anyone outside of the shelter. Federal and state laws addressing location privacy and GPS tracking, telephone “spoofing”, SpyWare, and other cyber stalking strategies have been shaped by the project’s testimony and guidance.

In response to the government’s interest in accessing more accurate numbers of women served by shelters, the Safety Net Project developed Domestic Violence Counts: the National Census of Domestic Violence Shelters and Services in 2006. This annual initiative works with the 56 state and territory coalitions in the United States to reach over 2,000 shelters and local service providers in order to count the number of adult and child victims served in one 24-hour period. For example, in 2011, the report noted that shelters and programmes helped more than 65,000 adults and children in just one day, and were unable to meet over 10,000 requests for help on that day due to lack of resources, staff, and bed space. The findings in the annual report have been used by Members of Congress to increase funding, by media outlets, and included in university text books.

Raising awareness

The initiative raises technology and privacy awareness by creating interactive educational materials to be shared in shelters, posted on online resources and regularly works with print journalists and television media (e.g. CNN) to educate victims who may be experiencing technology stalking. Social media is used to reach thousands and share activism strategies with the general public. The Project has successfully contributed to improving the way websites provide information to the public and survivors, with more than 38,000 websites implementing robust website safety notices using NNEDV’s template, language that warns about the dangers of computer monitoring, and encourages victims to use a safer computer or contact the police.

Building capacity

The Project works with communities and agencies to address how emerging technology issues impact the safety, privacy and accessibility rights of domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking survivors. Through phone, email, and in-person consultations, the project helps police and advocates on a range of issues including responding to complex technology stalking cases; developing internal databases that protect victim privacy, safety, and confidentiality; and implementing new technologies to safely reach survivors and educate the public such as smart phone applications and developing secure online chat systems. Since 2002, the Project has responded to over 13,500 unique requests for assistance, consultation, and resources, averaging over 100 requests each month.

Technology innovation

With broad international connections and unique technology expertise, the Safety Net Project is often asked to collaborate with technology innovators to ensure that privacy protections and security features are incorporated into the development of new technology products. The project joined the Facebook Safety Advisory Board in 2010, contributing regular guidance on privacy features and law enforcement response. The team has also provided consultation and assistance to various technology companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter.

“The Safety Net Project’s pattern of identifying technology issues at a national level and passing information and training on to state coalitions to implement at the local level has been immeasurably helpful to our work and to victims. Its director helped us to identify programme practices using electronic communication that could inadvertently compromise the safety of individual battered women. The project provided us with training that we could bring back to Illinois and pass on to every hotline/shelter programme. The project also identified the U.S. Federal Homeless Management Information System as a potentially good idea, but the implementation could jeopardize the safety of victims and their children. Once again, Southworth provided information, talking points, strategies, technical assistance, and useful handouts that will allow each state to address these issues on a state and regional basis.” Anonymous project user

See technology safety resources developed by the initiative.


Source: Cindy Southworth, Founder Safety Net. NNEDV. Washington, D.C.