Phone bill privacy rules highlight tech hurdles for domestic violence survivors

FCC will require carriers to separate family plans, redact hotline calls.
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Francis Scialabba

4 min read

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a new set of rules aimed at providing privacy and financial support to people experiencing domestic violence who share a phone plan with their abuser, spotlighting often-overlooked technology barriers for people trying to escape dangerous relationships and living situations.

The agency’s rules, unanimously adopted last week, will require phone carriers to separate survivors’ lines within two business days of a request, waive fees associated with such requests, and block records of communication with help hotlines on account logs. It also creates a path for survivors to receive low-cost phone service through an FCC-administered program for a transitional period of up to six months.

India McKinney, director of federal affairs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Tech Brew that her organization, along with a few others, flagged the amount of metadata that family-plan account holders are privy to in a letter to members of Congress. She noted that account owners receive reports on each number associated with the account including calls or texts, as well as details like the duration of calls, dates, and timestamps.

“In the hands of an abuser, that’s a lot of information,” McKinney said. She pointed out that carriers typically charge early-termination fees of up to $300 for line-separation requests—an amount survivors may struggle to pay, especially if the abuser controls the household’s money. It’s also not often practical or advisable for people to simply get a new number, as many important things are often linked to an individual’s existing phone number, she said.

The letter ultimately got through to lawmakers, McKinney said. Senators Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, and Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, were part of a group who introduced the Safe Connections Act in January 2021, and it became law late last year, directing the FCC to lay out implementation rules.

“For those affected by domestic abuse, a phone is a lifesaver. It makes it possible to reach out for help. It is a gateway to building a new life, away from harm,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said last week in prepared remarks. “That is why we are focusing on the connection between survivors and communications.”

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For Nicole Molinaro, president and CEO of the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, the FCC rules are a positive step that address one piece of the larger picture surrounding domestic violence and technology.

Molinaro told Tech Brew that the fees associated with removing a line from a family plan might not sound like a large barrier to gaining independence, but she said it’s common for survivors, regardless of their salary, to lack access to their own earnings.

“What’s important to remember is that financial abuse is part of over 99% of all domestic violence situations,” she said. “And so $200, even if $200 might not be a lot in that family’s financial situation overall, it’s a lot when you’re a survivor of domestic violence, and you have been experiencing financial abuse.”

Molinaro and her colleague, legal director Brittany Conkle, emphasized that phone-plan monitoring and control is just one symptom of “tech abuse”—an ever-evolving category of ways that abusers can exert power. For example, smart doorbells that capture audio and video footage have become a more prevalent way to monitor a survivor’s movements in recent years, Conkle noted.

“[In] almost all of the cases where we’re representing victims of intimate partner violence, there is some form of technological abuse,” Conkle said. “The spectrum of technological abuse is wide…It often feels like playing Whack-a-Mole, and the abusers are always coming up with something new that we’re trying to either mitigate or to come up with some new technologies to stop.”

In March, the Pittsburgh women’s center helped introduce a US version of the Bright Sky app and website, which can help people evaluate the safety of their relationships and spot signs of abuse. It also connects users with local domestic violence support services.

That’s just one example of how advocates can “harness technology for good,” Conkle said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit for more resources.

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