At-risk users are people who are more likely to experience a technology-facilitated attack or to be disproportionately affected when harm from such an attack occurs. Research involving at-risk users can pose significant safety challenges to both users and researchers. Nevertheless, pursuing research in computer security and privacy is crucial to understanding how to help meet the digital-safety needs of at-risk users and to design safer technology for all. To inform safer research with and technology for at-risk users, I’ll share insights from two systematization efforts:
First, I’ll present a framework for reasoning about at-risk users’ risks and barriers to technology use based on a wide-ranging meta-analysis of 95 papers. Across the varied populations that we examined (e.g., children, activists, people with disabilities), we identified 10 unifying contextual risk factors—such as marginalization and access to a sensitive resource—that augment or amplify digital-safety risks and their resulting harms. We use this framework to discuss barriers that limit at-risk users’ ability or willingness to take protective actions.
Second, to standardize and bolster safer research involving such users, I will share an analysis of 196 academic works to elicit 14 research risks and 36 safety practices used by a growing community of researchers. We pair this inconsistent set of reported safety practices with oral histories from 12 domain experts to contribute scaffolded and consolidated pragmatic guidance that researchers can use to plan, execute, and share safer digital-safety research involving at-risk users.
I will discuss how researchers and technology creators can use our framework and strategies to identify and shape safer research investments to benefit at-risk users, and to guide technology design to better support at-risk users.
Tara Matthews is a researcher at Google on the Privacy, Safety, and Security team. Her research has investigated the digital-safety practices and challenges of at-risk populations, including survivors of intimate partner abuse, people living in transitional homeless shelters, women in South Asia, people involved with US political campaigns, online content creators, and more. She has also conducted security and privacy related research on a wide range of products and tools. Prior to joining Google in 2014, Tara was a Research Scientist at IBM Research for 7 years, studying and improving the design of workplace collaboration and social software. Tara earned her Ph.D. in Computer Science, with a major in Human-Computer Interaction, from the University of California, Berkeley in 2007. While in graduate school, Tara participated in Berkeley’s Group for User Interface Research, and the Berkeley Institute of Design, and Carnegie Mellon’s HCI Institute (as a Visiting Scholar). She also completed internships at Microsoft Research, Intel Labs, and Lancaster University.