Content warning: This guide discusses aspects of domestic violence and abuse.
Domestic violence in the US is on the rise, according to a new study reported by HuffPost. One in four women experiences physical, sexual, or emotional violence from an intimate partner. In 2017, 2,237 women were killed by a partner, husband, or an ex. These statistics show that domestic violence isn’t going anywhere. If anything, the problem is growing right in front of our eyes.
Violence against women might be as old as the time itself, but the strategies used by the perpetrators to control and manipulate their victims change. In today’s world, technology plays a major role in abuse and digital stalking is a prime example of that.
It’s important that domestic violence survivors are aware of these threats and know how they can protect themselves. Tech safety for domestic violence survivors is an important step in regaining their personal autonomy.
Beware of stalkerware
You might have never heard of it, but stalkerware is an incredibly powerful tool of abuse. Known also as spyware or spouseware, it’s a tracking software that can remotely monitor your device. That means your abuser would get access to your browsing activity, read your texts, and see your exact GPS location. And what’s most terrifying of all is that this software is easily available online, even on Google Play until recently.
It’s come to light that tens of thousands of people might have had consumer stalkerware installed on their devices without their knowledge. Controlling partners might gift a victim a phone with stalkerware already installed on it or send them a malicious attachment that triggers the installation process.
If your device starts acting up for no reason or suddenly your partner knows things they have no way of finding out — what you search for online, the contents of your conversations, who called you — these are some serious red flags that your device might have been compromised. Other signs include a shorter device’s battery life or unusual background noise when you’re on a call.
How to prevent getting stalkerware on your phone
If you don’t think there’s spyware on your devices but you’re worried your abuser might attempt installing it in the future, you are not powerless.
First of all, change the passwords and screen locks for all your devices. It’s important not to use the biometric screen lock as the abuser could take your fingerprint while you’re asleep. Once you have new passwords, be careful where you unlock your devices. Someone might try to shoulder surf to steal your credentials.
Another important step is to watch out for the attachments you receive as they may contain malicious files. Make sure to get a good antivirus on all devices so it can catch stalkerware before it does harm.
What to do when you discovered stalkerware
Discovering that you’re being spied on by your intimate partner is not an easy pill to swallow. In the interest of your safety, however, try to stay calm and consider your options from a pragmatic standpoint. Confronting your abuser may result in an escalation of violence and as such is not recommended.
Elle Armageddon, a security expert and activist, recommends not revealing to the abuser that you’re seeing right through them. She suggests to carry on using the device as per usual in order not to alert your abuser that anything is wrong.
But, and that’s a very important “but”, once you know that your device is compromised you should be very selective with how you use it. Don’t confide in friends about your situation, don’t search for domestic violence support, and don’t Google exit plan strategies. Your abuser will immediately see those activities which might put you in danger and/or sabotage your exit.
Instead, buy a prepaid phone in secret or use a desktop computer at your local library. Seeking help from professionals and communicating with your friends and family is incredibly important and you should carry on doing so. Just make sure you can do it safely.
The new age of abuse
Today, there are new risks for women that didn’t exist a decade or even a couple of years ago. As technology progresses, all the best and all the worst scenarios are realized. Even though tech can empower women and make seeking help easier, it also provides countless ways to cause harm. Stalkerware is only one such tool.