Domestic Abusers Can Control Your Devices. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Domestic Abusers Can Control Your Devices. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Every day, Sarah Prager saw the magnet on her fridge warning her of the dangers of domestic abuse, but she didn’t think much of it. Her girlfriend’s tactics were much more subtle, involving checking her phone and electronic devices, she said. In response, Ms. Prager, a writer from Massachusetts, deleted text messages as soon as she sent them, and never complained when her partner went through her devices.

“She had such control and jealousy in general that it would’ve been really suspicious of me to ask her to not do that,” Ms. Prager said. Her partner would flip the script on her if she refused to show what was on her devices. “What are you hiding that I can’t look at your phone?” was the go-to response.

Tracking messages is just one way technology can be used by an ill-intentioned romantic partner to monitor, intimidate, and control you — and they don’t have to be a tech wizard to manipulate it. If an abuser gets access to your phone, they can unassumingly squirm into every aspect of your digital life, from private messages to location history. Technology-based abuse, also called “technology-enabled coercive control” by anti-domestic-abuse professionals, can be as nuanced as an abuser spoofing their number to bypass a list of blocked contacts and using social media posts to keep tabs on your interactions, or as sophisticated as tracking a car’s location throughout the day via GPS and installing apps to make smart-home devices run amok. The tactics executed by abusers vary widely, and they rely on tech because it’s cheap and easy to implement.

Here’s how to record abuse without being discovered, safeguard your devices, and, ultimately, protect yourself.

Every social services expert we spoke with said domestic violence survivors often convince themselves to ignore signs of abuse, technological and otherwise. So trust your gut if you suspect the worst in your partner. Signs of technology-based abuse may seem insignificant — like if an abuser brings up conversations you had in private with another person, or if you just feel like you’re being watched — but they can quickly snowball. “When those coincidences start to happen over and over again, that’s a sign that something’s not right,” Ms. Darlene added.

Ms. Prager knew her girlfriend was invading her privacy when she found sent and deleted emails she didn’t recognize in her email history, but she brushed it aside. “A phone is such a basic thing that we need for our lives. She used it to monitor and check on my texts and emails, and it’s what she used to contact me even when we weren’t together,” she said. “I didn’t think it was abuse at all because she wasn’t physically abusive until the day that I left.” Ms. Prager said her ex-girlfriend continued to stalk her, both digitally and in person, for about a year.

If you’ve weighed your options with a counselor and safely left your abusive partner, our experts agree that the first line of defense against future tech misuse and abuse is to increase the security of the technology you already use. No security setup is perfect, but these steps can make abuse much more difficult.

In the case of iCloud or Google accounts, shared access can grant much more information, including browser history, notes, files, photos, and more. If you’ve ever shared accounts like this, or if an abuser potentially has a password because they purchased or set up the app or phone, make a note of it. Below, we’ll walk you through setting up a new email account and resetting your passwords.

Our smartphones provide near-instant access to everything about our daily lives. To prevent that type of access in the future, you should set up your phone as securely as possible:

  • Enable a passcode. Some abusers may try to unlock a phone using a fingerprint or face login when you’re sleeping, so it’s best to stick with a six-digit passcode instead. If you don’t have a passcode, enable one — while it adds a mildly annoying step to unlocking your phone, it makes your phone much more secure. Most Android users can open Settings and then tap Security to create a passcode. (Depending on which Android phone you have, you may need to poke around to find this setting.) On iPhone, open Settings, tap Touch ID & Passcode, and make sure the passcode option is enabled. (If you have a newer iPhone, you might see Face ID & Password instead.) Disable any Touch or Face ID options while you’re there.

  • Change notification options. Notifications on your phone may reveal personal information, like the first few lines of a text message or email, to anyone who happens to catch a glance at your device. To protect yourself on an Android phone, open Settings, tap Notifications, and choose Hide Content for any apps that might include personal information. On iPhone, open Settings, tap Notifications, and change the Show Previews option to Never.

  • Check location settings. Location stalking is a way to see where someone is throughout the day, so it’s a good idea to identify which apps have access to your location and make sure you want them to have that info. On Android, open Settings, tap Location, tap App permission, and then review the apps that have access. On iPhone, open Settings, tap Privacy, and then tap Location Services.

  • See which apps are installed. An abuser may install something on your phone to spy on you, or use dual-purpose apps, like child-monitoring software, to track your location. To see everything that’s installed on an Android phone, open the Google Play Store, tap the three-line icon, tap My apps & games, and then tap Installed. On iPhone, open Settings, tap General, and then tap iPhone Storage. If you see anything you don’t recognize, you may want to delete it, but beware the abuser may get an alert when you do.

  • Update the operating system. Updating your phone’s operating system improves security and wipes out certain types of stalkerware, so set your phone to update automatically. On Android, open Settings, select About Phone, and make sure Check Automatically is set under Software Update. On iPhone, open Settings, tap General, tap Software Update, and scroll down to Automatic Updates to make sure it’s enabled.

Smartphone security is also about recalibrating how you use your phone. Train yourself to avoid clicking links sent through email or text, change your passwords when you notice strange activity on your accounts, and be mindful of what information you store (and share) on your phone.

As the name suggests, stalkerware is any software used to spy on or stalk someone else. It often includes several tools, like GPS tracking and keyloggers (which record keystrokes). In extreme cases, it can also record audio from mics or capture photos from a camera. Stalkerware is expensive, often retailing for $20 to $80 per month, and with smartphones, installing the software requires an abuser to have extended access to the phone.

Joe Seanor, a security consultant who works with domestic abuse survivors, said stalkerware typically comes into play when a phone or laptop was a gift from an abuser, is an older model, or has gone missing for an extended period of time. Once installed, Mr. Seanor said you’ll notice your data usage skyrocket (you can check this on your monthly bill). “It’ll double,” he said, adding that you should ask yourself, “Does my battery wear out faster than before?”

“Trust your instincts and talk to someone if you believe this may be happening,” N.N.E.D.V.’s Ms. Olsen said. “You deserve privacy and safety — offline and online.”

If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

If your calls are being tracked, call your local services hotline, like 211 or 311, and ask to be transferred to a local resource center.

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Posted by Krin Rodriquez

Passionate for technology and social media, ex Silicon Valley insider.