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College Apps: A Startup Tries to Disrupt Rape Culture 

Wednesday, Sep 9 2015
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Walk into any San Francisco co-working spot, hacker space, or coffee shop, and chances are you'll trip over the laptop cord of a twentysomething startup founder with a two-step dream: disrupt and monetize.

But for the architects of Callisto, a new sexual assault reporting web tool that launches this semester at the University of San Francisco and Pomona College in Claremont, there's a different goal: Disrupt and make sure the product can never be monetized. Callisto may have been coded in a tech co-working space in San Francisco, but part of the tool's security relies on the fact that the data it collects isn't worth hacking.

"Our goal is not to store anything that would be valuable to anyone to sell," says Kelsey Gilmore-Innis, the director of technology for Sexual Health Innovations, a non-profit whose mission is to create technological tools that advance sexual health and well-being.

Callisto allows users to log in from a location of their choosing, write down the details of their sexual assault, and send a report to university authorities — if and when they choose. Callisto provides detailed information for students about what will happen if they decide to submit their report to the college and employs a "matching system" whereby a student can choose to report an assault only if another assault by the same perpetrator is reported. While the tool is only available at the two California schools this year, like every other startup, Callisto is looking to expand. They're in talks with other universities for "year two" rollouts and have raised money from Google.org, the Knight Foundation, and others.

In some ways, Callisto's origin story follows the standard disruptive technology narrative: The founder experienced friction and inefficiency in an existing system and decided to fix it. But for Jessica Ladd, the 28-year-old CEO and founder of SHI, that experience wasn't trying to hail a cab or order takeout from a popular restaurant: it was reporting her sexual assault as a student at Pomona College, an ordeal Ladd has described as "one of the most traumatizing events of my life."

Studies suggest that as many as 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted in college and that only 12 percent of campus sexual assault survivors report their assault to police. While law enforcement agencies have an execrable record of handling sexual assault cases (one analysis by the group End Violence Against Women International found that only about 5 percent of rapes are ever prosecuted), university administrations — which often encourage students to handle assaults through their own internal disciplinary systems — have likewise overwhelmingly failed to prevent assault, punish perpetrators, and protect students. Increased activism and investigative reporting have led to initiatives from the White House and Department of Education to decrease sexual assault on campus, but the fact remains — of the students matriculating at college campuses across the city and country this week, a significant percentage of them will be sexually assaulted in the next four years.

"The reporting system as it exists on college campuses is really broken," says Tracey Vitchers, a spokesperson for SHI. "The prospect of walking into a dean's office of the Title IX office to tell a complete stranger about what is probably the most traumatizing event in your life is really overwhelming and makes lots of people uncomfortable."

Vitchers and the SHI team posed the question, "Can technology and the Internet somehow play a role in helping to fix this process?" Whether the answer to that question is yes remains to be seen, but the features of Callisto, whose design was informed by input from survivors, sexual assault experts, and university administrators, are engineered to smooth many obstacles that prevent reporting.

Callisto's reporting interface includes the rationale behind each question. For example, users are told they're being asked whether alcohol was involved in an assault because a person who is intoxicated cannot consent to sexual intercourse, not because anyone believes a drunk victim is to blame for his or her rape. The "matching" system was designed because research has shown that survivors are more likely to report their assault if they believe their assailant is likely to assault another person. It's technology informed by empathy, accounting for how individuals respond to trauma and how altruism influences human behavior.

Of course, with any technological innovation comes technological threats. Just a few weeks after hackers on the dark web leaked personal information about millions of users of extramarital affairs website Ashley Madison, students may hesitate to create an electronic record of their assault.

But Gilmore-Innis says that an Ashley Madison-style hack is unlikely for Callisto. "We got tarred a little unfairly with this brush that magical hackers can do anything and get in anywhere," she says. "But with Ashley Madison, you had a company that wasn't living up to their part of protecting users' data."

Gilmore-Innis worked with NCC Group to design the security protocol for Callisto, which includes encryption of data at rest (on the student's computer or while it's stored in the cloud) and in transit. The threat that most concerned Callisto was not nefarious hackers but potential litigants, who might try to subpoena Callisto's records for use in a lawsuit.

"We can't protect our data against a legal threat just by locking it up tighter," Gilmore-Innis says. What they did was require students to select a secret key when they create a report. That key is used to encrypt the report and is not known or saved by Callisto, meaning Callisto has no power to access the content of any report, even if they are hacked or subpoenaed. (It also means Callisto can't help a user retrieve the report if they forget their secret key, a trade-off that values security over accessibility.)

"Our goal as a system is to take a process that already exists and has all this friction built in and all these big tricky obstacles and try to smooth that with technology," Gilmore-Innis says. "Once you've decided to report and give it to the school, we want the risks to be no greater than if you decided to report in person."

At that point, the responsibility to treat survivors with respect and care is back in the hands of university administrators. After all, technological fixes can only take us so far.

Julie Orio, USF's interim vice provost of student life, emphasized that Callisto is "just one of many things we do at USF" to address sexual assaults. The school is communicating with the entire student body about the new tool, but USF students can also report in person to any faculty or staff member, all of whom Orio says have received trauma training.

As Alicia Harris, a former sexual violence prevention educator at U.C. Berkeley, says, Callisto is "an easy thing for campuses to get on board with, because it doesn't require that much of them." But at the end of the day, Harris adds, "We can't expect people to report (or encourage them to) when they're going to be met with incompetence and/or hostility."

Unfortunately, there's no app for that.

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About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Bio:
Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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