How Abusers Misuse Technology and What Abuse Survivors Can Do
Technology can do a lot of different things. For most of us, it’s deeply integrated into our lives. And often it makes our lives better. But it can also be misused and cause a lot of harm. If you’re in a situation where you need to protect yourself from someone trying to harm or control you through tech abuse, knowing how your data can be collected and accessed can help you be safer.
See The Intersections of Technology and Domestic Violence with Audace Garnett for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Audace Garnett has a long history of helping abuse and domestic violence survivors, including working with disabled domestic violence survivors, young people impacted by teen dating violence, and training the advocates who work with survivors. Now she’s the Tech Safety Project Manager with Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).
When she worked directly with survivors, most of Audace’s cases involved some form of tech abuse, whether the abuser was damaging the survivor’s phone, preventing them from using the internet, or committing fraud. Now, her job focuses specifically on how technology is misused by abusers and how survivors can use tech safely. She and her team provide training and tech support to advocates and others who support abuse survivors so they can help survivors protect themselves in the digital world.
Tech Abuse is Extremely Common
Safety Net did a study in 2020, released in 2021, where they spoke to advocates and attorneys who worked directly with survivors. The study found that 97% of domestic abuse cases also involved some form of tech abuse. The most common methods were harassment, stalking/monitoring, and limiting the victim’s access to technology.
97% of [domestic abuse] cases had to do with some form of tech abuse.Audace Garnett
Since tech abuse includes any kind of technology misuse intended to harm or control the target, there are a wide range of behaviors that count. Since abusers are familiar with the details of the survivor’s life, such as their parents and where they went to school, they can often guess security questions and get access to the survivor’s accounts. Once in, they can do a lot of harm.
The numbers revealed in the study were really high. But tech abuse, and domestic abuse in general, are both very under-reported. It’s hard to know exactly why, but there are some theories. One is because abusers tend to be controlling, so it can be difficult for survivors to find a way to report it. If they are living with the abuser and/or reliant on them financially, they may not report it because they don’t have the resources to leave the situation anyway. And there is also a lot of shame and blame connected to being an abuse survivor, so people often don’t want to say they’re being abused. But even with the numbers being under-reported, it’s obvious that both issues are huge problems.
How Abusers Misuse Technology
It’s important to clarify that when it comes to tech abuse, the tech is not the problem. Technology does a lot of great things. It makes our lives easier, connects us with others, and gets us access to all kinds of information and resources. You’re able to read this article because of tech! In fact, tech can be used to empower abuse survivors. With technology tools, they can go to school, find a job, start businesses, and do a variety of different things.
It’s not about the technology, it’s about the misuse of technology.Audace Garnett
The problem isn’t the tech, it’s the person using the tech to cause harm, perpetuate abuse, and maintain power and control. There are a huge variety of different ways technology can be used to cause harm and control someone. A common one his harassment – calling multiple times, leaving multiple voice messages, sending a lot of text or email messages, and sending threats. Tech abuse can also involve monitoring their actions online, logging into their accounts, changing passwords to lock them out, not allowing wifi access, or committing fraud. An especially disturbing one is impersonation – the abuser pretends to be the survivor and interacts with their friends and family online.
One form of this that you may have hard of is non-consensual intimate image sharing (NCII). Sometimes people call it “revenge porn.” But that’s not an accurate name because it’s not about revenge or about porn. It’s about harm and control Taking and sharing those images without consent is a violation of the survivor’s rights, body, and image. Some abusers create deep fake images, where they put the survivor’s face on someone else’s body. Regardless of what form it takes, NCII happens a lot.
The Impact of NCII
Audace worked on a case several years ago supporting the survivor through family court. She was in a relationship with the abuser for about six months. The abuser got access to intimate photos and posted them on social media. Every time the judge told the abuser to take down the images or the survivor reported the page, the abuser just created a new page and posted them again. This happened about sixty times.
At the time, the survivor was searching for employment as a teacher. She had a lot of anxiety that eventually became depression because of this situation. She felt that any future employer would Google hear name or do a background check and find these images. It’s hard to quantify that kind of pain and trauma, but it’s very real and very devastating.
In situations like this, we have to consider how it’s impacting survivors’ daily life, job, functioning, and parenting. If their children are old enough and online, are they seeing these images? How are they being impacted? Are they being bullied because of it? What’s happening on an emotional level?
You can’t just tell people to get off the platform, because people use technology for different reasons. Saying the solution is to get off a particular platform could cut off their connection with some people, leaving them further isolated. It’s important to figure out how the abusers are using tech to cause harm, hold them accountable, and make sure they can’t cause harm again.
If You’ve Been Impacted by NCII
If this has happened to you, Audace encourages you to go to stopncii.org. The website provides a free tool where you can open a case. They partner with a lot of tech companies and social media platforms, such as Meta, Snap, Instagram, and even Pornhub. If your images have been uploaded to one of those websites or platforms, opening a case on stopncii.org will alert the companies that they partner with. The companies can then take action to take those images down.
It’s a great tool available to survivors, and it’s completely free. It’s important to share these tools because survivors often feel like they’re alone. There’s a lot of shame and blame connected with these issues, especially of your intimate images have been shared publicly. Resources like this are out there and can help.
Protect Yourself from Tech Abuse
If you are a survivor or currently in a situation where someone is using technology to harm or control you, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. First, Audace encourages everyone to trust your instincts. Technology is enmeshed in so many areas of our lives that we can be uncertain about what’s happening. But if you feel like something is off, trust your gut.
Second, think about what’s actually happening. What does this person know? Do they have access to your account or profile? How did they get that access? Once you have an idea of what’s going on and what they know, you can take steps to secure yourself – if it’s safe to do so. What is safe depends on the situation. What might be safe for a person who has fully left their abuser might be different from someone who is still in that relationship, and both are different from someone who’s living with their abuser. Examine the situation for risks first. There are some great resources on the Safety Net Project’s website, techsafety.org, to help.
It’s all about safety, and everyone’s situation is not the same. So you definitely need to think about what is safest for you.Audace Garnett
Steps to Secure Your Devices
To secure your devices and your online life, there are a variety of steps you can take. One high-level thing you can do, if it’s safe to do so, is use non-identifying usernames. Don’t use your first or last name or anything associated with you. Choose something your abuser might not be able to guess. If you use something identifiable or easy for someone who knows you to guess, they could find your accounts with just a quick search. Also don’t post any photos of yourself on these accounts. Image search tools could reveal that the account belongs to you.
Also, use strong passwords on your accounts. It seems like very basic advice, but experts recommend using long phrases and a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. Don’t use things like your birthday or your mother’s maiden name. Choose something your abuser won’t be easily able to guess. And for every account that has an option, turn on two-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA sets up the account so that if anyone, whether it’s you or not, tries to log in, it will send a short code to an email or phone number you specify to verify it’s really you. It will both notify you that someone’s trying to get in and prevent anyone who can’t access your email or phone from getting in.
If it’s safe to do so, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. That will connect you with a trained professional who can get you in contact with an advocate in your local community who can support you in safety planning. You don’t have to be ready to leave to call. The advocate can help you make plans to stay safe and navigate the situation, but you’ll be in control.
What to Do if Someone is Tracking You
Many people are concerned that someone could be tracking them. It’s a very common form of tech abuse. Even if you’re not a survivor, you may be concerned about an ex or a spurned love interest somehow finding out where you’re going to be and showing up there. Since our devices can often function as tracking devices too, it’s a real concern.
Start by considering where your information is and how they could get access to it. If you went to the grocery store after work on Tuesday and they showed up, how would they have found that out? Are they following you? Did they attach something to your vehicle? Do you have a child in common who may have told them that you go to the grocery store on Tuesdays? Did you post something on social media? A lot of survivors are connected to family phone plans. Does your phone plan share your location, and does your abuser still have access to it? If you took a rideshare service there, they send email receipts – do they have access to the email account that gets the receipt?
We frequently share information without intending to, or even realizing it. So your first step is to figure out how they might get information about where you are. Once you know how they’re getting that information, you can start determining how to lock them out.
How Someone Could Track You With Tech
Tracking devices like AirTags have been in the news a lot lately. AirTags aren’t the only type of tracker out there, but they’re the most well-known. It’s another example of tech being good and bad. These small tracking devices are great to let you know where you left your backpack or your keys. But they can also be used in tech abuse to follow you around.
Apple has done a great job setting up notifications and trying to alert you if you’re being tracked by an AirTag. If you have an iPhone, you’ll get a notification. Since the notification doesn’t work on non-Apple devices, they’ve also created an app that will let you scan for nearby AirTags. Apple is very concerned about safety. But there are a lot of other tracker manufacturers that are less concerned.
It’s not just specific devices you can buy, too. Some vehicles come with built-in GPS tracking. If an abuser has access to the vehicle or the associated account, they could easily follow your car. Any vehicle that offers “premium connectivity” features has this – sometimes even if you’re not paying for it. And any car with a button to press for help or that claims to be able to call emergency services for you if you’re in a crash has these features. At minimum, the manufacturer can track it. It’s possible that someone else can too.
Some insurance companies even offer vehicle tracking devices that they market to parents of teen drivers. They offer to let parents track how fast their kids are driving and where they’re at. They may even offer a discount for using it. If something like that is connected to the vehicle and a survivor doesn’t know, it’s an easy way for abusers to track them.
If You’re a Survivor, This Hotline Can Help
Many survivors who are deep in these kinds of abusive situations need help navigating it, getting out of the situation, and doing things in a way that doesn’t result in more violence from the abuser. The Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233) can provide help and support. If your abuser has access to your phone, wiping it may result in retaliatory violence – they can help you think through what’s going on and make a plan to keep you as safe as possible. You can be connected to trained professionals and advocates.
Survivors are brilliant, resilient, creative, and familiar with their own situation. If you’re a survivor, you already know how to safety plan and keep yourself as safe as possible in the situation. What the hotline provides is someone to walk beside you in the process. You lead, because you know the situation best. But the advocates know what kind of resources and options are available that you may not be aware of. They can connect you with resources and information to help you even more. It’s a partnership designed to keep you as safe as possible. You don’t have to be ready to leave to take steps to be safer.
How to Support a Survivor
If you’re not a survivor, there are things you can do to help the survivors in your life and also help the situation in general. First, have these conversations. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and people wear purple for awareness. But domestic violence happens every day of the year. People need to talk about it all the time. Whether you’re connecting with a friend or family member or posting about it on social media, share what you know.
Domestic violence happens 365 days of the year … it’s something that we need to be talking about.Audace Garnett
If you know someone who is in this situation, let them know that they’re not alone, help is available, and what they’re experiencing isn’t their fault. Survivors often feel alone, and shame and blame are common. Be there to provide support. Don’t insist they leave the person, operate on your timeline, or do what you think is best. It’s not easy to leave, and they are the expert on their situation. Be there to provide unconditional support, be a listening ear, and let them know help is available.
You know this information exists – share it. There are people out there suffering in silence because they don’t know who to talk to. Some may not even identify as a victim. If violence was normalized in their community and their home, they may think violence in relationships is normal. It’s important to create awareness and let people know help is available.
- Easy Prey Podcast
- General Topics
- Home Computing
- IP Addresses
- Networking Basics: Learn How Networks Work
- Online Privacy
- Online Safety
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