Never reported: Torontonian uses big data and privacy expertise to create anonymous index of sexual assault
Lauren Reid has a unique contribution to the ongoing conversation about unreported rapes and the climate for addressing sexual assault claims.
Raped three times — once in high school and twice in university — her jaw-dropping experience had never been documented in any official record or police report.
Now, the 30-year-old Toronto resident is using her professional background in big data and privacy to push for a national, anonymous, user-controlled and self-reported database on sexual assault.
It is an ambitious project, unprecedented in its scope, but it comes with its own set of complicated challenges and concerns.
Right now, the best self-reported data on sexual assault comes from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Victimization, in which a random sample of Canadians are asked, out of the blue and by phone, if they have ever been sexually assaulted. The most recent survey shows 6% of Canadian women self-reported a sexual assault — a number that activists believe is under-representative. An oft-cited statistic that one in four Canadian women have been sexually assaulted is routinely picked apart.
“It took me 15 years to tell my story, so if you are sitting at home watching TV with your family and someone calls you and says ‘So have you been raped?’ who knows what you’re going to be ready to say at that time?” said Ms. Reid, who hopes to launch the database as part of her existing project, When You’re Ready.org — a place where survivors can share their stories in a supportive environment.
“The goal with When You’re Ready is to create a database that allows us insights into ‘Why didn’t you report it?’” among other things, she said.
The intention of this new database being proposed by Ms. Reid is to also try to gauge how many people are sexually assaulted more than once, if people didn’t know it was rape at the time, if they were drinking or drugged and so on. Users would enter their stories and add or change information any time. The database would need to maintain clear definitions of sexual assault, she said, and it would be fully anonymous — no naming of names allowed. Above all, the data would be in the users’ control and “de-identified,” likely using the Privacy by Design framework developed by former Ontario privacy commissioner and world-renowned privacy expert Dr. Ann Cavoukian, who said she applauds Ms. Reid’s vision.
Even those who support the intention of such a database worry about privacy concerns, legal implications and false reports.
“How do you know who’s submitting? How do you know it’s not a men’s rights activist?” said Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of the Women Against Violence Against Women rape crisis centre in Vancouver.
She is skeptical that privacy protections will be sufficient in an era of surveillance and hacking, and she feels that the numbers collected by Statistics Canada and rape crisis centres such as her own, which are shared with government, are enough.
“If this web-based platform seeks to influence the public that sexual assault is indeed an issue because of the numbers, then why is it not enough to know that currently there are approximately 472,000 self-reported sexual assaults in Canada every year?”
Holly Johnson, a criminologist with the University of Ottawa who studies violence against women, says the database could be “one source among others.
A former manager of the Statistics Canada victimization survey, she said those surveyors would build a rapport with the respondents and ask carefully worded questions about sexual assault using specific definitions that align with the Criminal Code of Canada.
Even so, many women did not want to answer the question.
“About 1,000 out of 12,000 called back and wanted to talk about it later,” she said.
Actress Lucy DeCoutere, the first woman to identify herself in connection with the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, said she supports Ms. Reid’s vision.
“It would allow women to feel like they have agency over their experience,” she said. “If people are starting to go through the process of reporting and have to go through the words a few times before they say them, this might be a stepping stone.”
But she also sees the drawbacks: Participants need to be sure they are ready to share their rape experiences before they submit their stories, and ideally there would be a trained team on the receiving end. And there are “humungous legal implications” too, she said, in that defence lawyers may comb a database like this looking for inconsistencies.
But, she said, “the best thing about this is it’s a conversation continue-r.”
Dr. Cavoukian is excited by the prospect of big data helping to drive an issue with such momentum even further ahead. Her Privacy by Design framework is based on the notion of individual consent and control. Casinos in Ontario use its biometric technologies to help problem gamblers stay out — again, with that problem gambler’s consent.
“There have been a lot of critiques about the numbers that have been collected. My guess is that this is highly under-reported,” said Dr. Cavoukian, who is now executive director of Ryerson University’s Privacy and Big Data Institute.
“If people felt confident that they could come forward without fear of reprisal or publicity, that they could just have a dialogue, I think you’ll be much more likely to get some real measures associated with this.”
Ms. Reid admits that this project won’t solve all the problems, but it is certainly better than the status quo.
“The purpose is to generate knowledge about a problem,” Ms. Reid said. “It isn’t to prosecute people.”