Some advice for survivors and those writing about them

wheatpasted street art. on the left, text in all caps stating "your heart is a weapon the size of your fist keep loving keep fighting". on the right a white drawing of a hand holding a heart on a black background.

It seems we’re about due for another round of Shitty Infosec Dude Gets Outed As A Predator. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll link to it when stories appear. In this case, I’m referring to Morgan Marquis-Boire. Having been through this myself last year, I want to stand in solidarity with other survivors, as well as to ask journalists to not be fucking assholes.

Some things I learned as a survivor coming forward:

  • Coming forward is a HUGE step towards protecting other people. If you’ve done so willingly, thank you for your profound courage. We talk a lot in infosec about whistleblowers, but you should know that you are a goddamn whistleblower too. If your story has been told without your consent, I know that that’s a wretched retraumatizing experience and I am so sorry – but please do know that it’s not without impact and WILL keep other people safe in the future.
  • Lock your online stuff down as best as you can. Here’s an extensive guide I wrote much of which covers security stuff as well as physical threats like SWATting, and here’s a short one that covers the computery essentials. The even shorter version: use a password manager to set up unique passwords on key accounts, and enable two-factor auth on your email/Facebook/Twitter.
  • Carefully vet the reporters you talk to. I have personally worked with and trust the security practices and sensitivity to survivors of Sarah Jeong, Selena LarsonKate CongerCyrus Farivar, and Jessica Guynn – journalists who are covering this, feel free to reach out and if I trust you and think it’s appropriate I will add you here. There is at least one male journalist sniffing around about this who I have personally seen mistreat women. Approach with caution. Another good tactic here is to ask if they’ve previously covered sexual assault and/or sexism in tech and ask for press clippings of previous coverage.
  • If you’re talking to the press, email interviews are a great hack. You get the time to consider what to say and make sure that it won’t open you up to litigation, you can just decline to answer some of the questions (because cripes, the questions people will ask you…). Working over email also lets you run your responses by a trusted and hopefully less-traumatized friend to make sure they’re unambiguous and don’t reveal more than you intend.
  • Some useful language re: the press. Know the difference between these terms, and get the reporter you’re talking to to agree to the one you prefer before you say anything:
    • On the record: can be published, can be attributed to you by name
    • Off the record: can’t be published, can’t be attributed to you by name
    • On background: can be quoted or paraphrased and used as a story detail without direct attribution but with a vague organizational affiliation, eg. “a person in the White House who was not authorized to speak to the press” – this is the usual “anonymous source” mode
    • On deep background, not for attribution: can be quoted or paraphrased and used as a story detail without any attribution
      • When you want to say something on either “background” and “deep background,” it’s useful to give a clear definition of what you mean, just so you’re both on the same page. The definitions given above are commonly used. If you want, copy/paste those exact sentences into the email with the reporter so you’re unmistakably clear about your boundaries.
    • You can ask for anonymity. You can ask for press time to be delayed. You can negotiate anything as long as you do it before you give the quote. If you have conditions, make sure your agreement is hashed out in advance. Journalists are not bound to conditions imposed after the fact.
    • If the reporter is working for a magazine, sometimes they will ask you for a phone number so that a fact-checker can call you. Don’t be freaked out: this is common practice and doesn’t mean you’re going to be de-anonymized. Incidentally: the fact-checker is not obligated to read back to you verbatim what’s going to be in the piece, but you will get a sense of what’s going to end up in the piece based the questions they do ask.
      • Again, if this freaks you out, negotiate a different process before you give the quote, such as doing the fact-checking over email.
    • You can do things like “anything below this line is on the record” or “anything in italics is off the record” – just get an agreement in writing with the journalist as to the shared format
    • The rules around on the record / off the record / not for attribution / anonymity and so on are built to give journalists flexibility in dealing with sources who have power, like the PR divisions of major corporations. If a journalist pushes the outer bound of ethics really far with a victim, that has entirely different consequences than doing that to a company. Keep in mind that corporations and government sources negotiate these kinds of terms with journalists all the time, and very aggressively: there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be in your toolkit too.
  • It is up to you whether this is a good time or not to be open to hearing from other victims. Last summer, I noted in my post that I wasn’t ready to listen to other survivors’ stories, and directed folks to appropriate counselling resources. Almost everyone respected this, for which I was grateful. It gave me time and space to process going public without being retraumatized by trying to help others process their own experiences. I have since spoken with many other survivors (of the same assailant and others) and it has been a very important part of my healing process, but it was important to me to take the time to just process the media drama with close and trusted friends, and my therapist, first.
  • Therapy is great and has been an essential part of being resilient in the face of garbage fires like you’re going through. If you’re employed, your work may have an EAP that will get you a therapist with minimal fuss. If it’s not covered by your insurance Captain Awkward has a guide to locating low-cost mental health services in the US and Canada, and a newer post on other free and low-cost mental health resources.
  • I was fortunate to have access to good pro bono legal advice and some familiarity of my own with the laws around defamation. You probably want to find a lawyer to talk to (it’s worth paying money for if you can’t find someone to talk to you for free). Local domestic violence shelters and rape crisis hotlines may be able to help here with referrals. Remember that lawyers tend to be conservative due to the nature of their work; “this could get you sued” is not the same as “this WILL get you sued”. Sometimes the risk is worth it. The other thing to look are the “anti-SLAPP” laws in your jurisdiction – some of them have language that specifically deals with the right to speak out about one’s own experiences with DV or sexual assault.

Now I’m not actually an expert on how reporters should treat survivors of sexual violence, so I’ll mainly link to some excellent exisiting guides. Please comment or ping me if you have resources I should add. But what I will note is a few things I learned from my experience last year:

  • If you’re sleeping with the perpetrator, don’t report on this story. The disgrace to the profession of journalism I’m subtweeting here knows who she is.
  • Don’t name victim’s employers unless it’s actually relevant to the reporting. William Turton did this to me last year. He never reached out to me for comment about my report of harassment, just went straight to naming my employer in his article. Gross.
  • I’m going to write more here soon including some of the more egregious Bad Questions I got asked but wanted to get this posted for survivors first.

Finally, some resources for horrified bystanders:

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