Smartphones Double-Edged Swords for Victims of Domestic Abuse

Photo: Thinkstock.
Photo: Thinkstock.

After Bay Area resident Miriam Abu Sharkh had finalized her divorce, she began to suspect that her ex-husband was following her.

“He would show up places,” says Abu Sharkh, a documentary filmmaker and consulting associate professor at Stanford University. “I would be driving home and he would all of a sudden be right next to me on the freeway.”

“How would he have known where I was?” she asks, explaining that, because her ex-husband had been psychologically and physically abusive during their marriage, she’d feared he was stalking her. It was her nephew who suggested she check her cellphone’s location sharing settings. “What I didn’t know is that on these new iPhones there is a feature where you can flip a button to share your location with a particular person indefinitely.”

The button had been switched to share her location with her ex-husband. Abu Sharkh instantly pictured the time she’d handed him her phone while their son was having a seizure. She recalls, “I wanted to hold my son, but I also wanted a video of the seizure to show the doctor. He must have flipped the setting in those 60 seconds. And then he started tracking me.”

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of American adults now own a smartphone. And as these mobile devices become more integral to daily life, the more prominent their role becomes in domestic abuse.

A cellphone is a lifeline for survivors who need to dial 911, find a safe place to stay or reach out for support. But in the hands of an abuser, a cellphone can be a double-edged sword, says Julie Saffren, a family law attorney and domestic violence educator in Santa Clara County. “The same tools that a victim uses to access services and stay in touch with resources can be misused by a perpetrator to abuse, harass and monitor a victim.”

In 2014, National Public Radio conducted a survey of 72 domestic violence shelters in large cities and small towns across the nation. Eighty-five percent of shelters reported they were working directly with victims whose abusers had tracked them using GPS. Seventy-five percent reported they were working with victims whose abusers eavesdropped on their conversations remotely through hidden mobile apps. The report concluded that cyberstalking via smartphones is now a standard part of domestic abuse in the U.S.

New legislation may not do enough

Victim advocates frequently encounter the dangerous situation where an abuser is the primary account holder on a victim’s wireless phone number—not only maintaining responsibility for paying the bill, but also having the ability to monitor a victim’s use and turn on features such as location tracking.

“Survivors can change their number, but it’s a process,” says Maria Barranco, program manager at Monarch Services in Watsonville. “Many of our survivors need to be in contact with employers, housing options and childcare. The phone is their means of communication. Changing their number is another stress to deal with.”

To help survivors gain control of their phone accounts, California Assembly Bill 1407 was recently signed into law and will go into effect in July of 2016. The new law will authorize family courts, after notice and a hearing, to issue orders requiring wireless service providers to transfer billing responsibility and rights for a victim’s telephone number into the victim’s name.

“It’s important for survivors to have control over their phone account, in part to make sure nothing is installed,” says Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Project (http://nnedv.org/projects/safetynet.html), a technology project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “It’s also important that they maintain control so they can use [their phone] as an authentication device. Also, it’s important for when they are trying to get a job, and when family and friends are trying to connect.”

Some advocates say that this change may not go far enough. The bill’s language provides numerous provisions for wireless service providers to opt out of fulfilling a court order. And because an abuser must be notified and then given a chance to be heard before an account can be transferred, the victim’s phone remains under the abuser’s control in the interim.

Saffren says the bill is well-intentioned, but she’s concerned that it won’t help victims during the time they most need control of their phone. She explains, “The most dangerous time is when a victim is leaving. When I’m leaving, do I want to carry around a device that allows an abuser to track my whereabouts?”

The ‘short skirt’ of the digital age

Abu Sharkh’s ex-husband’s name was never on her phone account—all it took to change her privacy settings, she says, were the seconds he held her phone while their son was seizing. Because her ex was much more tech-savvy than she was, when they were married she’d given him her passwords so he could help her with online accounts. She says that later she found evidence he was monitoring her emails and information stored on her phone through iCloud.

“I didn’t realize that if someone has access to iCloud, they have access to everything,” she says. “Even after I changed the password, he had the recovery address so he changed it back.”

Family locator applications, like those available through iCloud Family Sharing and most wireless carriers, are intended for parents to keep track of children. But abusers can use these applications, as well as features like “Find my iPhone,” to monitor victims. Some applications have “geofencing” functions that send a notification if the phone goes outside a specific geographic area or travels to a particular location.

If abusers have physical access to a victim’s smartphone, they can easily install one of the many spyware applications that can be downloaded from the Internet. Through spyware, an abuser can monitor all a victim’s phone activity, including text messages, call logs, voicemail, and location information. Some spyware applications can transform a victim’s phone into a listening device, remotely monitoring phone calls and conversations in the room.

In California, a phone is governed by the same laws as a computer, says Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Tom Flattery. “Installing an app on someone’s phone without their knowledge is a crime … and the law absolutely protects against tracking software.”

But to investigate spyware cases, he says, “the device has to be examined by a forensics lab—and those labs are backed up with a lot of cases, so it can take months. Then the victim is without their device for months.”

Most reports of cellphone monitoring or harassment never make it to the investigative stage, unless they are acutely threatening. “Not all police districts have people trained in technological forensics,” says Saffren. “These are all illegal behaviors, but they end up being extremely hard to enforce.”

When Abu Sharkh reported her ex-husband’s stalking behavior to police, they told her it could be coincidence that she kept running into him. She couldn’t prove that he had selected ‘share location’ on her phone, or that he’d accessed her email and other private data. She describes the feeling of being constantly under surveillance, yet being powerless to stop it, as a form of psychological terrorism.

Frequently, women who report cyberstalking or cellphone harassment are told to change their phone numbers, or to stop texting or using social media, says Southworth. “Technology has become the short skirt and high heels of the digital age,” she says, a way of blaming the victim for intimate violence.

A better solution, she says, is to bridge the tech gender gap and teach survivors how to protect themselves with privacy settings on their cellphones, computers and social media.

“In the digital age, women need to have access to technology; it’s an economic doorway to self-sufficiency,” Southworth says. “But, to me, the larger issue is that women should be safe in their homes, at their jobs, in the streets, online—and on their cellphones.”

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