Tech. Safety Guide: Preventing Intimate Partner Violence
This article is just one in a series of guest posts written on internet safety, you can read the rest here.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) affects nearly one third of American women. Although technology can provide tools for victims (e.g. for collecting evidence against an abuser), it can also unfortunately be used by perpetrators. That’s because control is an integral element on IPV, and the misuse of technology can give abusers a means of exerting control over their victims.
According to a recent study, while many perpetrators use technology specifically designed for surveillance, it is far more common to repurpose other types of apps in order to achieve the same goals. Some of those used include find my phone apps, and family tracking and child monitoring apps.
The problem with this is that advocates against IPV can’t go after the companies that manufacture these apps, and app stores can’t block them, as most of the time, they’re used for perfectly legitimate purposes.
Many of these apps allow abusers to track their victim’s location, read their messages by having them forwarded to a different device, and even watch and listen to them remotely by activating the phone’s camera and microphone.
As mentioned above, there are also apps explicitly marketed for nonconsensual surveillance. While it’s rare to find these in a legitimate app store, there are plenty that can be found in other corners of the internet. And even though most phones come with a default setting that blocks off-store apps, guides for overriding it can easily be found online.
One of the most nefarious elements of these type of apps is that they can usually be configured so the app icon is hidden, thus making it nearly impossible for the victim to detect it on their phone.
You might think the solution would then be to scan the phone for spyware, but unfortunately, even some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Symantec, Kaspersky, and Avast, have proven largely ineffective at detecting these apps.
So what can you do to protect yourself?
3 Ways to Keep an Abusive Partner from Surveilling You
1. Keep Your Phone on You at All Times
Almost all the apps studied require that the abuser physically have access to the victim’s phone at least once.
2. Be Cautious Using Any Phone You Didn’t Obtain Yourself
Abusers with a lot of control over their victims often control their money too – and so end up being the ones to purchase their phone. In these cases not only can they pre-install dual purpose apps, but with a little tech savvy, they can can even root the device, giving them the ability to install the most nefarious off-store apps. There are even companies that will sell phones that are already rooted, or that have surveillance software pre-installed.
3. Password Protect Your Phone, and Don’t Share Your Password with Anyone
As mentioned above, having a password to keep your phone locked is the first line of defense in keeping its contents secure. If you suspect your partner is accessing your device, immediately change your password. Make it long and complex, and make sure not to use elements they might be able to guess, like your birthday or pet’s name.
That said, we’re not naive, and can’t ignore the reality that many victims of IPV are coerced into revealing their passwords or “allowing” these dangerous apps to be installed on their phones.
Whether or not you’re in the position to safeguard your device, if you are the victim of IPV, there are resources that can help you get out. These are just a few of the organizations that have made helping victims their mission:
National Network to End Domestic Violence: https://nnedv.org/
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233, http://www.thehotline.org/resources/
Family and Youth Services Bureau: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/fysb/resource/help-fv
In general, it’s a good idea to have an emergency app on your phone, just in case. These let you notify friends or family when you’re feeling unsafe, and/or contact emergency services.
Some types of phones have these features built in, so it’s worth checking to see if yours does. If not, check out these apps, all of which are available for both Android and iOS.
ICE, which stands for In Case of Emergency, allows you to send a message and your GPS location to selected contacts when you want your friends or family to keep tabs on your whereabouts. You can also set the message to be delayed, so say, if you don’t come back from your hike by nightfall, that’s when they’ll get the message.
React Mobile does the same thing as ICE, but also has an SOS Help Me button that notifies your pre-chosen contacts via email and text, and if you choose, posts a message to Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, the app automatically contacts local emergency services.
Siren GPS won’t contact your friends and family, but with a push of a button, will alert emergency services and provide them with your location. You can also set up a personal profile with relevant information that is then passed on to the authorities in case of emergency. This can include medical conditions and emergency contact info. The app also gives you the option of calling the fire department, an ambulance, or the police.
You can also show certain information on your lock screen to be used in case of a situation in which you’re unable to give information about yourself to emergency services. For instance, you can write something like, “In case of emergency, call [name of your partner]” and then write their phone number. Or, if you have a specific medical issue – like a severe allergy or epilepsy – you can include pertinent information there.
How to set a lock screen message will vary depending on what model phone you have.