Security dilemma (1): an online advice service for people experiencing honour-based violence or forced marriages

Practical Solutions, an organisation based in Blackburn, Lancashire, has set up a website to provide information about honour-based violence and forced marriages. The site has an online “confidential advice service” to enable a site user to request advice from an expert. A user creates an account with the site, and can submit a question after logging in. Answers from the Practical Solutions team will be accessible through this account. The site recognises that people wanting advice about forced marriages or honour-based violence may be put at risk in attempting to seek advice, so keeping confidentiality and discretion is necessasry. So, the site has a page called browse privately, which recommends the following:

When browsing the internet, your computer keeps a history of all websites that you have visited. If you do not delete this history, there is a chance that people will be able to see what websites you have visited. In order to minimise this risk of someone viewing your history, you can delete your temporary internet files, history and cookies.

The problem is that the if the adversary is aware of the browing history feature, as the average user probably is, then they may also feel its absence. If the inquirer chooses to completely clear the cache, the trade off is between the risks of a) an adversary directly discovering that the inquirer has been trying to access help, with immediate negative consequences for the inquirer; and, b) the adversary being suspicious that the browser has no history, and wondering what users of the computer are trying to prevent them from finding out, which may be equally as negative.

So, how could this service be made safer using techniques that are within the knowledge of the average Internet user?



  1. Paul C
    Posted December 27, 2009 at 6:18 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Might be a trick question: what if the service can’t be made safer without making it too complex for the average user? (Note: if the average user is my mum, then it’s too complex simply by virtue of being on the web.)

    It seems unlikely that this sort of service is something worth doing over the web, since it’s absolutely dependent on the trust embodied in the personal relationship with the person / organisation providing support.

    • Posted December 29, 2009 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Seems to be a bit of a punt to me; they couldn’t know that anyone from the target group would use an online system, so they’re experimenting. It’s also an extension of existing expert services that are tied into the statutory agencies, so I guess it’s just another way to make that trusted connection in the first place. After that, it’s business as usual and I’m sure that they have well developed protocols for safely arranging a follow-up call or meeting.

      Concerning the safety of the service, I wonder if having completely nonsensical, session specific URLs would be better. Something like It’s transparent to the user, doesn’t work if visited again after 10 minutes, and it’s certainly more explainable than a URL attributable to a campaignning organisation. The browser can also be forced not to remember the username and password (using the autocomplete=off switch), but it’s not foolproof.

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