Digital Inoculation; Taking Back Control - Steps to Protect Yourself From Tech Facilitated Abuse
Having been a police officer for over thirty years, I saw my fair share of domestic abuse incidents where a partner decided, for their safety, that they needed to leave the relationship or have the other partner arrested and removed from the home. However, in today’s digital world, technology can be used as a fierce weapon to continue to control, harass, and abuse its intended target from afar (1, 2, 3).
This article is all about empowering someone who is leaving an abusive relationship and providing them with information on how to take digital control back from the abuser, who now could be using technology as a weapon of retribution and control. This article is going to overview aspects to consider and also provide some recourses to secure, control, and assert your digital autonomy, thus increasing your safety and security both online and offline. We are going to look at several digital challenges that one could face when leaving a relationship, including issues surrounding cellphones, emails, vehicles, the internet, social media, smarthome devices, and personal banking.
Probably the easiest way for an abusive partner to spy on your online activities, or identify your location, is through your cellphone. If an abusive partner has had any access to your phone, there are several spyware apps that they could have covertly downloaded onto your phone.
Purchase a secondary “burner” phone with a new phone number that your partner doesn’t know about and keep it well hidden. We know that phones can be expensive, and finances can be limited when leaving a relationship, which is why we recommend looking at purchasing a cheaper phone like the Android Figo Orbit 2. When you finally leave the relationship, ditch your old phone and ensure that your burner phone now becomes your primary phone. If using your burner phone while still living with your abuser, make sure that you do not use the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on the phone. There are several ways that an abuser can utilize a home router to see if another device is attempting to connect to the home Wi-Fi network and this can identify the presence of your burner phone. If your phone is actively searching to connect to Bluetooth accessories, this can also be a way to identify the presence of the device.
If you cannot purchase a burner phone, ensure that when you separate from your partner you conduct a full factory reset on your personal phone. Often this will delete any spyware that has been downloaded onto your phone. Remember, a factory reset will often delete all other information on your phone such as pictures and contact information, so make sure that you back-up any information that you do not want deleted.
Android Phone Reset:
If you are separating from your abusive partner and taking your primary phone and laptop with you that has not yet been factory reset by yourself, make sure that you turn off data, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth until you either you get a burner phone or conduct a factory reset on your primary phone. We also suggest that you block your caller ID from being seen.
Turn off Wi-Fi iPhone
Turn off Wi-Fi Android
Turn off Bluetooth Android
Block caller ID iPhone
Block caller ID Android
No matter what phone you possess, once you have separated from your partner, make sure that you turn off the metadata function (camera) and location services (like Find My Friends) on your phone. Metadata can be used to help pinpoint your location in the world:
If your original phone is needed as evidence, power it off, take out the SIM Card as soon as possible, and hand it over to the police. This will help to prevent your ex-partner from attempting to remotely wipe/delete any evidentiary information on your phone remotely.
Given that you are likely going to have to set up a variety of new financial and social media accounts, you need to make sure that you create a new email account that cannot be accessed by your abusive partner. You want to make sure that you DO NOT use your name in this new email account such as firstname.lastname@example.org. Rather than using an unencrypted open email like Google, consider using a free secure encrypted email account such as https://protonmail.com. Just as a reminder, continue to use your regular email account until such time that you have separated from the abusive partner so as to not raise suspicions. Once the separation has taken place, abandon your old email and move to your new proton email account. Only share this new email with people you trust and ensure that they know not to share it with anyone else, especially your ex-partner.
Many are unaware that most modern vehicles allow an owner, or an abusive partner who has access to your vehicle, to install a mobile app that allows them to control several functions remotely from their smartphone including locking/unlocking doors, starting/stopping the engine, and location of the vehicle. Some examples:
This is why prior to leaving an abusive relationship, ensure that you connect with your vehicle’s service department to make sure that this function, if activated, is turned off. If this is financially limited, ensure you go through the manual to disable any remote app function.
Another important safety protocol is to ensure that you search the entire interior of the vehicle, including the trunk, looking for any phone or other electronic device that you do not own and discard it. These devices usually can be installed with an app that allows another person to track where the device is located in the world. A good example is the Apple “Find Me” application. In addition, cheap, battery powered GPS trackers are easy to purchase.
Ride Sharing Apps:
Ride sharing (such as Uber) has become a very popular means of transit. If you use a ride sharing app like Uber, make sure you do not use your present account (in fact, delete it), and create a new account utilizing a new covert email and new credit card to register. Many of these vendors create a ride history available through the app. Also, these ride sharing apps leave a digital trail on a credit card statement, given that a credit card is needed to register. So, if your partner has access to your credit card account, they can utilize this information to potentially find your location.
The Internet and Social Media:
Incognito/Private Searching Mode
If you are using your home internet to research and prepare your exit from an abusive relationship, we recommend that you use “incognito” or “private” mode. It is not uncommon for abusers to check the history of digital devices that you will use (a form of digital control) so it’s possible that you may tip your hand that you are thinking about or are going to leave a relationship. Yes, you can delete history after use, but often in the heat of the moment you may forget to do this. By searching using incognito or private mode, what you are doing will not be captured in the “history” function of your device.
Google Chrome Incognito PC:
Safari Mac Private Mode:
Safari iPhone Private Mode:
Although you are using a “private” function on the browser, keep in mind there might be other apps that could be used to spy on what you type.
Change all usernames and passwords on all accounts:
Change all your usernames and passwords on all your social media platforms, cloud storage devices, email accounts, bank and credit card accounts, work logins, shopping sites like Amazon, smart-home device accounts, and your computers just before you leave an abusive relationship, or immediately after your exit. We recommend that this be done on a trusted friend’s computer, or your burner phone, and not a device that is owned or can be accessed by the abusive partner. It is not uncommon that abusive partners will install a covert hardware or software program called a “keystroke logger.” A keystroke logger can record every keystroke that you press on your device, thus allowing them to see your new passwords. Although less-than-desirable, if you do not have access to a friend’s computer or a burner phone, your last option could be to use a computer that is located in a public library. Remember, when using a library computer, or any computer, that you always log off or sign out of all accounts rather than just closing the window when you are done.
Remember, when choosing a password, pick one that has at least six letters, and contains no personal information. Here’s one way that we suggest to create a great secure password that you will not forget:
#1: Pick a phrase that has at least six letters that you will not forget such as, “Marry had a little lamb”
#2: Capitalize the first letter in each one of the words in the phrase: “Mary Had A Little Lamb”
#3: Now squish the entire phrase into one big word: “MaryHadALittleLamb”
#4: Now replace any letters “a” with the “@” symbol and any letter “e” with the “3” so now it looks like this “M@rryH@d@littl3L@mb”
#5: Now add an exclamation mark at the end “M@rryH@d@littl3L@mb!”
Remember, never store your passw