A California couple have launched an online tool to connect victims of workplace sexual misconduct to others harassed or abused by the same person—and they plan to fund it by anonymizing the data they collect and selling it to the accusers’ companies.
The just-launched website, ImWithThem.org, is the latest example of the intersection of the #MeToo movement and technology. It’s a nonprofit started by two people with business backgrounds who hope to help victims—but privacy experts say the tool raises red flags.
The website, founded by marketing strategist Laurie Girand and her husband, former Broadcom Corporation CEO Scott McGregor, allows victims of sexual harassment to submit confidential reports. The site then connects them to anyone else naming the same perpetrator.
The aim, Girand said, is to help victims build a stronger case to bring to their human resources department, the media, or anywhere else they choose to turn.
Victims often find strength in numbers, whether because they fear retaliation or think they are more likely to believed. Girand’s site is one of several new group reporting tools that have launched since the start of the #MeToo movement, when case after case showed the power of multiple victims speaking up.
But experts warn that these new tech tools, no matter how well-intentioned, come with risks.
“The big problem we’re trying to solve is thousands of years of harassment, assault and misogyny, and we need all the tools to solve that,” said Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “But we always have to bear in mind that we can’t sacrifice the privacy, safety and confidentiality of one victim for the greater good.”
Callisto, a similar site for reporting repeat offenders, recently expanded from serving college students to connecting startup founders with complaints about investors’ behavior. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, it hopes to partner with companies, professional organizations, and labor unions to fund their members’ participation.
The smartphone app JDoe launched last year to securely link victims of the same predator with a lawyer. It gets funding from attorneys who pay to be in its referral network and also takes a cut of any settlements.
Girand said companies would not be able to buy individual reports, but could learn what kind of harassment was most prevalent or which departments generated the most complaints. The point, she said, is to help companies identify trends or problem areas.
But Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and an unpaid adviser for Callisto, said that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of why a company might purchase such data.
“Aggregate data is not necessarily anonymized,” Galperin said. “It’s pretty easy to de-anonymize data, especially when you have more than one data set.”
From there, she added, “[companies] can use it to retaliate against people who are complaining about sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. They can use it to try to silence people.”
Girand emphasized that the data would be compiled with that of other users to make it more difficult to identify a single complainant. She also said I’m With Them would not sell data to companies with very few employees. “Our users are our highest priority,” she said. “It does us no good to somehow try to sell data and reduce harassment if we then cause a problem on the other end.”
But Southworth, who founded the NNEDV’s Safety Net Tech Project, also urged caution when using the website, noting that the company also reserves the right to notify authorities about serial perpetrators. She warned that revealing the name of suspects to law enforcement could also make it easy to identify the complainant.
“If they're using an algorithm to decide which offenders they're going to affirmatively and proactively report, without the victim’s consent, that’s a problem,” Southworth said. “[Victims] have already had something really horrific happen to them; it is their choice whether or not they are involved with police.”
Girand said I’m With Them intends to use the reporting feature only if a suspected pedophile is entered into the database, or if there is a pattern of multiple rapes in one area. She said the company realizes its users are “adults with agency” who can choose for themselves when they want to report.
The subpoena issue became more than a hypothetical this fall, when a man whose name appeared on a public “Shitty Media Men List” sued for the names of every contributor. A recently submitted motion for early discovery in the case demanded that Google—the host of the since-deleted spreadsheet—turn over all versions of the list, all people who accessed it, and all electronic communications pertaining to its creation, publication, editing, circulation, and publicizing.
There is also the potential for bad actors on each service. I’m With Them authenticates its users when they sign up, but a user guide suggests verifying all connections to ensure they are not impostors posing as victims.
Southworth said it is promising to see businesses embracing an effort to end violence against women, but said the same principles that apply in the marketplace may not be appropriate for sexual misconduct matters.
“There is a value in people understanding that this is not only good for society, it’s good for business, it’s a good thing to do,” she said. “But you have to be super-careful when you wade into interacting with victims and making promises—or not even making promises—that you can’t keep.”