Tech Safety

The below information is provided by the NNEDV and TechSafety.org. For additional information, visit their website.

Tech Safety

The prevalence of technology has made our lives more convenient, but it's also allowed for abusers to monitor people or learn information about them without their consent. Below are some best practices that the National Network to End Domestic Violence's tech safety team has put together. For more in depth information, how to guides, and video instruction, visit the NNEDV's technology safety center.

Click here to jump to each topic, or read through in chronological order.

Prioritize your safety

Consider using a safer device. If you think that someone is monitoring your computer, tablet, or mobile device, try using a different device that the person hasn’t had physical or remote access to in the past, and doesn’t have access to now (like a computer at a library or a friend’s phone). This can hopefully give an option for communication that cannot be monitored by this person.  

Get more information. Navigating violence, abuse, and stalking can be very difficult and dangerous. Victim advocates in your area can tell you about options and local resources, and help you create a plan for your safety. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673,or the National Human Trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 to be connected with an advocate near you. More information about technology, harassment, and abuse is in our Survivor Toolkit at TechSafety.org.

Trust your instincts. Abusers, stalkers, and perpetrators are often very determined to maintain control over their victims, and technology is one of many tools they use to do this. If it seems like the person knows too much about you, they could be getting that information from a variety of sources, like monitoring your devices, accessing your online accounts, tracking your location, or gathering information about you online.

Strategically plan around your tech. When abusers misuse technology, it’s often a natural reaction to want to throw away devices or close online accounts to make it stop. However, some abusive individuals may escalate their controlling and dangerous behavior if they feel they’ve lost access to the victim. So before removing a hidden camera that you’ve found, or a GPS tracker, think through how the abuser may respond and plan for your safety. For example, some survivors choose to use a safer device for certain interactions, but also keep using the monitored device as a way to collect evidence.

Identify the abuse

Look for patterns. Take some time to think through what kind of technology may being used to stalk, monitor, or harass you. For example, if the abusive person has hinted that they are watching you, think about what they know. Do they only know what you are doing in a certain area of your home? If so, there may be a hidden camera in that room. If you suspect you’re being followed, is it just when you’re in your car or is it also when you are on foot? If it’s just in your car, then there may be a device hidden in your car. If it’s everywhere, it may be something you are carrying with you, such as your phone or a tracker in your bag. Narrowing down the potential source of technology can help you create a safety plan and to document the abuse.

Document the incidents. Documenting a series of incidents can show police or the court a pattern of behavior that fits a legal definition of stalking or harassment. Documentation can also help you see if things are escalating, and help you with safety planning. For more information, check out our Documentation Tips for Survivors.

Report the incidents. You may also want to report the incidents to law enforcement or seek a protective order. If the harassing behavior is online, you can also report it to the website or app where the harassment is happening. If the behavior violates the platform’s terms of service, the content may be removed or the person may be banned. It’s important to recognize that reporting content may remove it completely so it should be documented prior to reports for evidence.

Steps to increase safety

Change passwords and user names. If you think your online accounts are being accessed, you can change your usernames and passwords using a safer device. Once you’ve updated the account information, it’s important not to access those accounts from a device you think is being monitored. You can also consider creating brand new accounts, such as a new email address with a non-identifying username instead of your actual name or other revealing information. It’s important to not link these new accounts to any old accounts or numbers, and not to use the same password for all of your accounts.

Check your devices & settings. Go through your mobile device, apps, and online accounts, and check the privacy settings to make sure that other devices or accounts aren’t connected to yours, and that any device-to-device access, like Bluetooth, is turned off when you’re not using it. Make sure you know what each of your apps are and what they do. Delete any apps on your device that you’re unfamiliar with or that you don’t use. Look for spikes in data usage – these may indicate that monitoring software such as spyware may be in use.

Get a new device. If you suspect that your actual device is being monitored, the safest thing may be to get a new device with an account that the abusive person doesn’t have access to. A pay-as-you-go phone is a less expensive option. Put a passcode on the new device, and don’t link it to your old cloud accounts like iCloud or Google that the person might have access to. Consider turning off location and Bluetooth sharing. You also might keep the old device so that the person thinks you are still using it, and doesn’t try to get access to the new device.

Protect your location. If the person seems to always know where you are, they might be tracking you through your mobile device, your vehicle, or by using a location tracker. You can check your mobile devices, apps, and accounts to see if location sharing is turned on, and update the settings to best suit your needs. You can also call your mobile phone provider to ask if any location sharing services are in use, especially if you were/are on a family plan with the person. Location tracking through your car might be through a roadside assistance or safe driver service. If you are concerned about a hidden tracking device in your car or other belongings, a law enforcement agency, private investigator, or a car mechanic may be able to check for you. It’s important to safety plan and document evidence before removing a device or changing an abusive person’s access to your location information. 

Consider cameras and audio devices. If you suspect that you’re being monitored through cameras or audio recorders, it may be happening through hidden devices, gifts received from the abusive person, or even everyday devices like webcams, personal assistants (such as Google Home or Alexa), or security systems. If you’re concerned about hidden cameras, you may consider trying a camera detector, though some will locate only wireless cameras, not wired cameras, or vice versa. Everyday devices or gifts may be able to be secured by changing account settings or passwords. Built-in web cameras can be covered up with a piece of removable tape (although this only addresses the camera, not the spyware on the computer). Remember to consider making a safety plan and documenting evidence before removing devices or cutting off an abusive person’s access.

Steps to increase privacy

Protect your address. If you’re concerned about someone finding your address, you might open a private mail box, or if your state has an address confidentiality program, check to see if you can be a part of that program. (Note that this is most helpful if you have recently moved or the abusive person doesn’t already know your address.)Tell friends and family not to share your address, and be cautious around giving it out to local business. Also, look into what information is public in your state if you were to purchase a home so you know your options.

Limit the information you give out about yourself. Most everything we do these days asks for personally identifying information—whether it’s to make a purchase, open a discount card, or create an online account. The information we provide is often sold to third parties, and later ends up online in people-search engines and with data brokers. When possible, opt out of information collection, or only provide the minimum amount necessary. You can get creative – for instance, instead of using your first and last name, use your first and last initials. You can also use a free virtual phone number, such as Google Voice, to give yourself an alternative number to share when you need to.

Control your offline & online privacy. Our Survivor Toolkit at TechSafety.org has Online Privacy & Safety Tips, including more information about changing settings on your mobile devices, social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter, and your home WiFi network. Follow those steps to increase your privacy and decrease risks for an abusive person to misuse those technologies, locate you, or monitor your activity.  

This information is provided by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Safety Net Project. Supported by US DOJ-OVC Grant #2017-TA-AX-K015. Opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of DOJ. 

Spyware/ Stalkerware Overview

SAFETY ALERT: Spyware and stalker ware have made it easier than ever before for perpetrators to stalk, track, monitor, and harass victims. Abusers, stalkers, and other perpetrators can use spyware to secretly monitor what you do on your mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet. If you want to speak with and advocate, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you suspect you are being stalked or monitored:

  • Be aware that anything you do on that device may be seen by the abuser, including searching for the spyware or how to get help.
  • Use a device that the abusive person isn’t monitoring.
  • Trust your instincts. Look for patterns to help figure out what the person might be doing.

What is Spyware or Stalkerware?

Spyware or stalkerware is an app, software program, or device that enables another person (such as an abuser) to secretly monitor and record activity about another person’s computer or phone. The term ‘stalkerware’ is a more recent term that draws attention to the invasive, intrusive, and dangerous misuse of these tools. Spyware enables remote monitoring to facilitate surveillance, harassment, abuse, stalking, and/or violence, without the user’s consent. The software may be “hidden” on the device, and does not provide explicit and persistent notification that the software is installed. Spyware or stalkerware can be installed on a computer or smartphone. It is usually difficult to detect and remove.

There are many ways that people may monitor or surveil someone’s device.  While stalkerware and spyware are commonly used to talk about apps and services, designed and marketed for spying, abusers may also misuse others types of device features, such as “Find My Phone” or family locator services. This raises concerns about other ways abusers may misuse phones or computer features to further stalk, harass and monitor.

Is Spyware or Stalkerware Legal?

In general, it is illegal to monitor or surveil another person without their permission or knowledge. This applies to both in-person behaviors and those acted out via technology. Depending on the circumstance and context, installing spyware can violate a wide range of laws, ranging from stalking or harassment to unauthorized access of a computer, to wiretapping and eavesdropping. For more information on laws related to electronic surveillance, visit WomensLaw.org.

What Can I Do If I Suspect Spyware?

If you suspect that spyware is on your device(s), read through the resources below to learn about spyware, signs to help determine if it’s there, options for removing it, and how  to document what’s happening while keeping yourself safe. You can also consider speaking with law enforcement about what they can do to investigate the spyware on your device.

Be aware that anything you do on the device with spyware installed could be revealed to the person who is monitoring it, so consider using a device that isn’t being monitored. Also, consider other ways that someone could know about the activity on your devices, such as having access to the device itself, to your online accounts, or even by simply asking other people who have information about you. The following are some resources, if you want to learn more:

Phones

Cell phones are integrated into our lives in a way that allows us, and potentially others, access to a lot of personal information, including our activities, social circles, and even location. The following information will help you assess whether you think your activities and location are being monitored through your cell phone and offer strategies to consider that can help maximize your safety needs. If you believe someone is abusing, stalking or harassing you, we recommend that you work with a domestic or sexual violence victim advocate to ensure that you get all the information and resources you need.

Is there a pattern?

Cell phones can be monitored in many ways. If you think that someone is monitoring your cell phone activity, try to narrow down what that person is doing by looking for patterns in the person’s behavior.

What does the person seem to know?

Does the person seem to know everything—who you’ve spoken to, the content of conversations you’ve had either on your cell phone or near your cell phone, texts you’ve written and received, where you go—or just pieces of that information? Narrowing the possibilities of how your activities are being tracked will help you determine the device, program, or means by which you are being monitored, and safety strategies you may want to consider.

Has the person monitoring you, or someone they know, had access to your cell phone?

Most monitoring of cell phones requires physical access to the phone. The person might regularly scroll through the phone to see who called and texted you or may have installed monitoring software on the phone allowing them to view your activity from another phone or computer. With physical access to your phone, they could download apps or change account and security features to make your phone more vulnerable.

Does the person have access to your wireless carrier’s account?

Another way that perpetrators can monitor your cell phone use is if they have access to your wireless carrier’s account. If their name is on the account, they may have the ability to turn on features, such as family locator services, or they may be able to access your billing records online and see your call logs and other information.

Do they seem to know your location?

Are you using location-based apps on your phone?

With many location-based social media platforms, you could inadvertently be sharing your location. Check to make sure that you don’t have apps running that are pulling your location and publishing it online. Although many of these apps require you to “turn on” your location, you’ll want to look into the location and privacy settings on your phone and within these apps to ensure that you are in control of that information. Additionally, there are “locate my phone” features in apps or built-in settings in some phones to locate your phone when lost or stolen. The person monitoring you may access that account or install an app with that feature without your knowledge to determine your location.

Are your friends or family using social media and sharing your location?

Some applications allow friends to check you into a certain location, showing exactly where you are. Other times, someone may mention you by name in an online message while also referring to being at a specific location. If you are using these social media applications you may be able to set up notifications so that you know if others share your location. Depending on the application, you might be able to change your privacy setting to not allow others to share your location information.

Does the person monitoring you seem to know where you go, even when you don’t have your cell phone?

Although cell phones can be misused to track someone’s location, many other technologies can be misused to track location as well. They can use an actual GPS device that could be in placed your car or your belonging. Or they could misuse the navigational system in the car to see where the car is in real-time or they could download the data from the navigational system to see where the car have gone.

Do you notice unusual activity on your phone?

Excessive battery drain on your phone or a spike in data usage can be an indicator that additional software or spyware is running on your phone.

If the perpetrator has installed spyware on your phone in order to monitor your usage, you may see a surge in battery and data usage, double text messages, and sometimes shutdown problems. If you are concerned about spyware, work with your carrier and find out what your options are.

Safety Strategies:

Trust your instincts. If you suspect that someone is monitoring your location or conversations, they might be doing so. Narrowing down how they are monitoring your activities will help you determine your next steps.

Pay attention to patterns and behaviors. In many intimate partner stalking instances, the victim knows that the abusive person is monitoring his/her activity based on things the abusive person says or does. This information might help you figure out how they are monitoring your activities.

Document what you can. If you can, document what is happening so you can establish a pattern of monitoring and stalking behavior. This can be helpful if you want to pursue stalking or harassment charges and can help you visualize the monitoring so you can adjust your safety strategies accordingly.

Talk to friends and family. For many survivors who are trying to relocate or hide, it is family and friends that inadvertently share their location. If you have children, talk to them about their technology use and limit how much they share about their own location. Even innocent comments or posts about where they are going or what they are doing might tip off stalkers about their location.

General cell phone safety strategies.

  • Lock your cell phone with a pass code and don’t share the passcode with anyone.
  • Turn off the GPS on your phone and leave it on E-911 only. Be aware that some phones may limit this capability and some apps will not work with the GPS turned off.
  • Some apps will allow you to opt out of it gathering location information; if an app will not give you that option, consider not downloading the app. For apps that do allow you to opt out, turn off the location feature and check regularly to ensure that your preference doesn’t get changed during an update.
  • If you have apps connected to online accounts on your cell phone, do not stay logged in. Log off after each use.
  • Turn off the Bluetooth on your cell phone when it is not in use.
  • Check your cell phone account every now and then through your wireless carrier’s website to ensure that you know all the features that are running on your phone.
  • Run anti-virus and security software on your phone. Some software will even list all the programs that are running on your phone.
  • Avoid purchasing a “jail-broken” iPhone or “jail-breaking” your iPhone (removing the manufacturer and carrier’s restrictions) since these phones are much more vulnerable to spyware and malware.

Strategies if you feel you are being monitored.

  • If you can, replace your current phone.
  • Some carriers offer free or low-cost phones and service to people who qualify as low-income. You can also contact your local domestic violence program to see if they can help.
  • You can purchase a pay-as-you-go phone, one that isn’t connected to any accounts that the perpetrator might have access to. Make the purchase with cash to avoid the phone being connected with your personal information.
  • If you purchase a new phone with a traditional carrier, considering switching carriers and phone number. Ask that you are the only authorized account holder and check to see what type of notifications you will receive if any features get added or removed.
  • Most cell phone companies also sell used or refurbished phones that are more affordable.
  • Think about your safety when getting rid of the monitored cell phone. Some perpetrators may escalate their abusive behavior if they think that the survivor is removing their control and access.
  • Depending on what is being used to track your location, some location applications will allow the user to set a location that could be different from where the user actually is.
  • Take caution before moving data (porting contacts through the carrier or using the same memory card) or SIM cards from the cell phone that is monitored onto the new phone. The safest method is to manually enter the new data onto the new phone.
  • If you cannot leave the cell phone but don’t want the person monitoring you to know where you are going, you can turn off the phone and take out the battery. For additional security, you can wrap your phone in aluminum foil to ensure that no signal is being received or sent. Keep in mind, however, that once you turn the phone back on, all data waiting to be sent and to be received will occur, and if someone is monitoring your whereabouts, when you turn the phone back on, they will know.

Safety strategies for GPS devices.

  • Narrow down what might be used. If it is a GPS device that is in the car, you could ask a trusted mechanic or law enforcement to go through the car to see if they can find the device.
  • Be thoughtful about identifying and removing the device. Keep in mind that the person monitoring you might also know that you visited a mechanic or law enforcement and may escalate his/her abusive behavior if he/she suspects that you may be removing his/her access and control.
  • GPS devices can also be hidden in gifts either to you or to family members. Look through anything that is new or was given as a gift.
  • GPS monitoring can be passive or active; if it is passive, the person monitoring will need to extract the data from the GPS device to see where the GPS device traveled. If it is active, then the device is sending out a signal that is communicating where the GPS device is traveling.
  • Some counter-surveillance equipment will “jam” the GPS frequency but keep in mind that this will also jam other signals, such as cell phone signals.

You can learn how to limit location access on a smart phone by watching this video

Online Privacy and Safety

We’ve all heard it before – nothing that happens online is ever truly private or anonymous. And while that is true, it’s also true that there are ways people can increase their privacy and feel safer online. This tip sheet is for survivors who are looking for ways to stay connected but want to feel safer and keep their information more private.

Signing Up for Accounts

  • Create email addresses and usernames that don’t contain identifying information such as your full name or birth date / year.
  • Use different usernames and profile pictures for each site, and have more than one email account for different purposes like work, school, and social groups. You can also consider using a picture that isn’t of you for your profile photo.
  • Be thoughtful about sharing personal information beyond what’s necessary to create an account or set up a profile. Sometimes sites don’t make it super obvious that the information is optional, so look out for the fine print!
  • Click “no” when sites or apps offer to check your contact list to help connect you with your friends already on their site.
  • Opt out of having your profile be searchable on the site itself, and from showing up in general search results like Google.

Passwords

  • The best passwords are at least 12 – 15 characters long, and can contain letters, numbers and symbols.
  • Use different passwords for accounts that contain sensitive or personally identifying information.
  • Log out when you’re done and opt out when asked if you want the device, browser, site or app to remember your password.
  • Read more in our Password Safety.

Privacy Settings & Policies

Social Media

  • Social media is built to be social. Some information is by default always public, while you can choose who sees other information and posts. Regularly review who is in your friends lists, and be aware that your friends’ friends may be able to see your posts.
  • See our guides to Facebook and Twitter.
  • Read more about safety and privacy with Online Dating, and Online Gaming.

Friends & Family

  • Talk to your friends and family about what they can post online about you.
  • Don’t forget that your employers, churches, sport teams, groups, and volunteer organizations may share your personal information online.

Safe Web Browsing

  • Use anti-virus software, keep it updated, and regularly scan your devices.
  • Periodically delete history, cookies, temporary internet files, and saved forms and passwords from your web browser.
  • Read more about Internet Browser Privacy Tips.

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