Asking for Trust — An Engineer’s Perspective

Building JDoe has been unlike anything else I’ve been a part of, on a technical level and a personal one. If you’re reading our blog you probably already know what JDoe is and how it works, but in case you don’t: JDoe is an anonymous and encrypted reporting platform for survivors and witnesses of sexual violence. The platform algorithmically identifies repeat offenders and connects their victims to personal injury law firms. The point being that JDoe is not your typical tech startup. The data JDoe handles are about as sensitive as they get, and the community we’re hoping to serve — survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence — has in a way already been profoundly let down by all of us. Our justice system is and continues to be predisposed to mistrust victims. HR departments across the country have let sexual harassment cases be swept underneath the proverbial rug. All of us, through action or inaction, have permitted the continued existence of a culture that fetishizes violence against women and pretends it can’t happen to men.

All of us, through action or inaction, have permitted the continued existence of a culture that fetishizes violence against women and pretends it can’t happen to men.

Asking the public to trust you is and should be frightening. Asking for the trust of a community that is vulnerable and has been repeatedly let down by the institutions that are supposed to protect it, is terrifying. For an engineer, it prompts the question “is what I’m building worthy of the trust we’re asking for?” This question has occupied my mind constantly since I began work on JDoe, and has been the driving force behind nearly every technical decision we’ve made. Anonymity and security are not the default, they have to be constructed. Making sure the systems we’ve put in place are robust and fault tolerant from the get-go is JDoe’s highest priority.

Anonymity and security are not the default, they have to be constructed.

Security is usually the first thing people ask about when I talk to them about JDoe. We welcome the questions and the scrutiny; they push us to be better. The next thing people usually ask about is false reporting. There are a myriad of answers to this question, all of them good and none of them complete. First, despite pervasive myths to the contrary, false reporting of sexual crime is rare. Secondly, JDoe never provides identifying case information to anyone — it’s encrypted in a form no one but the user can access. Our firms do not learn the personally identifying details of cases from us, they receive them directly from the user(s) once a consultation has occurred. In other words JDoe is not providing a new destination for reports, but a new avenue through which they can reach law firms. Imagine a situation in which two people are hurt by the same person and coincidentally reach out to the same law firm. The firm puts two and two together and is able to strengthen both cases. JDoe’s niche is to make this coincidence the norm.

It usually takes half an hour or so of back and forth, trading hypotheticals like that, to convince the person I’m explaining our concept to that we’re not completely crazy. We know that we’re playing with fire, but we think JDoe is exactly the kind of shift that will be necessary to dramatically reduce sexual violence and make justice more accessible. The model we’ve conceived is robust and, I hope, will be part of the transition to a new normal in which rape, harassment, and abuse are extremely rare. That’s worth it.

— Chris Barton Dock, Head Engineer at JDoe