Stalking in a Digital Age

By Amy Thomson

Before modern technology was adapted in a way that could be exploited for monitoring and intimidating, the effort that stalkers exerted was mostly physical. The bulk of stalking was carried out by bombarding the victim with unwanted calls, sending threatening letters and unwanted gifts, watching them, or repeatedly going to places the stalker expected them to be.

In cases of escalated stalking activity, the perpetrator threatened to harm pets, photographed the victim without their knowledge, or compromised the safety of their victim’s vehicle. Getting in-depth information about the victim was difficult, and using it in a way that could destroy their life was not as straightforward.

Those days are gone. While the examples mentioned above are disconcerting, technology has exponentially compounded the danger victims face. Technology-assisted stalking has forced victims into a position where they cannot hide from the aggressor. Perpetrators are now able to track, eavesdrop, record, watch, intimidate, and shame victims without leaving home. Even worse, an increasing number of tech companies offer spyware to the public for stealth monitoring.

Abusers engage in stalking as a way to maintain and enforce the control they have over their victims. Recognizing its usefulness, abusers have adapted technology as a way to monitor their victims. Stalking that occurs in the context of intimate partner violence is linked to increased risk of injury and escalation.

Statistics provided by the Stalking Resource Center are startling:

  • Current or former partners stalk victims at a rate of 61% for women and 44% for men,
  • 89% of female murder victims who had been physically assaulted experienced stalking in the year leading up to their murder,
  • 76% of female murder victims experienced stalking by their partner,
  • 67% of female murder victims were also physically abused and
  • 57% of intimate partner stalking victims experienced the onset of stalking during the relationship or as an immediate response to ending the relationship.

Forms of Digital Stalking

GPS Tracking – Abusers can plant tracking devices under the car, in a purse, on strollers – anywhere that provides convenient hiding places to enable them to track their victim’s movements. Also, Bluetooth capability and geolocation settings on phones, tablets, and computers allow abusers to track their victims without their knowledge.

Geotagging and Metadata Exploitation (source: Domestic Shelters) – Phones and tablets embed metadata, or a list of properties linked to the image: camera type, exposure, and flash. Metadata also includes dates and timestamps in addition to providing mapped locations. These settings are toggled on by default at the factory, and it is not uncommon for device owners to be unaware they are enabled. Although social media accounts can hide locations, a resourceful abuser can still locate their victim using this information. iPhone/iPad users can follow this link, and those with Android devices can click here for steps on turning the geotagging feature off.

Social Media – There is some ability to control who views information about a person on profiles and what can be viewed. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram (and professional networking sites such as LinkedIn) provide user options to control how public their activity is. While some platforms display the user’s town, there are some like Snapchat that reveal the user’s location – right down to the street level.

Spyware and Other Monitoring Apps – There is a wide range of apps that monitor the activity of others. Some include eavesdropping and video recording, keylogging, and call/text intercept. Eavesdropping and video recording apps are used by abusers to listen to calls or in-person conversations and record video or audio. Keylogging registers every activity on the victim’s device and captures more than texts, emails, or browsing habits. Security of protected data is also at risk, as keylogging allows the abuser to record passwords to email and social media accounts as well as banking, credit card, and shopping websites.

Syncing Activity across Devices – Apps allow users to sync data between devices, making it easier as they only need to carry one device at a time. However, abusers can install these apps to sync their devices to their victim’s. This enables them to view all activity and files saved to the device. Syncing functionality can increase the risk to victims of domestic violence who might be using their phone to store pictures of injuries, injury logs, or browsing history showing searches about leaving an abuser. Abusers can also delete any files or communication that incriminates them.

Spoofing (source: Domestic Shelters) – Many commonly hear this term about telemarketers and phishers that use masking apps to hide their number. Abusers also use spoofing to avoid detection when stalking their victim. In addition to being able to make it appear someone from the victim’s contact list is texting or calling, the abuser can also alter the sound of their voice, add ambient noise, and even keep recordings of the calls. In cases where the victim contacts the abuser regarding the harassment, it can be difficult to prove the harassment originates with the abuser, as the abuser often manipulates this to make it appear the victim is at fault.

Identity Theft – With so much data about us online, it is surprisingly simple to learn detailed information about another person, including residence, bank and salary information, social security numbers, and other data required to assume someone’s identity. Abusers can use this information to assume their partner’s identity and apply for credit, mortgages, and make purchases in the victim’s name without them knowing.

Account Breach/Takeovers – It is also possible to change passwords to sites, blocking the victim’s access, or to change security settings and send communications to the abuser without the victim’s knowledge. This can be particularly damaging financially, but there are other concerns. Abusers can also hack their current or former partner’s email account, change passwords, and send prurient, offensive, or embarrassing emails to co-workers, members of a religious congregation, or others to ruin the victim’s reputation.

For tech safety tips, visit the FTC blog site or the National Network to End Domestic Violence Technology Safety site. Additional information on stalking can be found online at the Stalking Resource Center.

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