Domestic Violence Victims: Protect Yourself Online

By Jennifer Prizeman-Utara, Esquire & Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire

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When domestic violence victims are contemplating a separation or divorce, they need to protect themselves online as they research their options for leaving.  In this blog post, we discuss ways to protect yourself online, including communicating and researching while planning your escape. 

 

If the Device You Are Using Is Being Monitored

If you think the device you are using is somehow being monitored – always use a safer device that the abusive person cannot, and has never been able to, physically or remotely access. 

This can be a safe computer at a trusted friend or family member’s house, or a public library or domestic violence shelter.   If you think your computer is being monitored, Operation Safe Escape has a thorough secure communications guide.  

Operation Safe Escape focuses on the tech and security aspect of escaping domestic violence.  They have a wealth of information and resources about staying safe while escaping abuse, including security guides. OSE’s goal is to help victims learn security concepts so that they can set up safe methods of communication to use while planning their escape. 

 

Spyware

Regardless of your browser settings or whether you diligently clear your internet history – this will not hide your activity if spyware is installed on one of your devices.

If spyware is installed– keep in mind that your attempts to investigate whether it is installed or remove it can be seen by the person who installed it. Talk to a victim advocate before doing this – and also consider going to law enforcement, who may be able to help preserve evidence on your device. Spyware creators work hard to make their programs undetectable. Running anti-spyware software has varying levels of accuracy, depending on the sophistication of the spyware. Sometimes spyware can be disguised as a game, perhaps one allegedly downloaded for your child.

 

Safer Browsing While Accessing Resources

One of the first steps to being safe online is adjusting your browser settings, which depend on which one you use to access the internet. For more information about specific internet browser settings that can increase your privacy and safety, visit https://www.techsafety.org/internetbrowserprivacytips.

Use private (or “incognito”) browsing mode whenever you are researching information relating to domestic violence or planning your escape. 

In private browsing mode (for example, incognito mode in Google’s Chrome web browser), create an email address with no connection to your real identity.  Here you can communicate with your attorney or victim advocate, save your safety plan, and save any important information, documents, or photos. Be sure to continue using your old (and possibly monitored) email so that your abuser isn’t tipped off.  Also be sure to sign out of any accounts like Google or Facebook, and delete emails and text messages (and also from any trash or archive folder) that reveal your escape plan. Operation Safe Escape highlights a service that allows you to securely send yourself a safety plan: https://www.opsecprofessionals.org/your-safety-plan/ 

It is important to note that even if you clear your browsing history, there are tools that allow an individual to retrieve information about your activity. Operation Safe Escape also recommends you clear your DNS cache, since your DNS record can show your history even if you were in private mode, as well as delete flash cookies that can reveal pages you’ve visited. Learn how here

Be sure to delete any websites related to domestic violence or safety planning from your browser history. Selectively clearing your history after visiting these sites is important because erasing your entire history may look suspicious and tip off your abuser. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has instructions on deleting certain items from your history, depending on which internet browser you use. 

 

Other Tools You Can Use to Safely Browse the Internet While Planning Your Escape

Consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to increase the security of your internet browsing and activity.  Domestic violence shelters have phone policies in place designed to protect the safety of you and others staying there.  Often, they will have a VPN available to use.

Another tool is the Tor browser, which allows users to hide their internet activity. (It actually hides the activity so well that it has caused controversy, since it is sometimes used by criminals).  

Operation Safe Escape even offers a free tool that allows a person to use the internet without leaving a trace.  You can contact them to request that one be sent to a safe address here

 

Staying Safe on Your Smartphone

Mobile phones present a major security and privacy challenge.  Functions we’ve come to rely on – like internet access, GPS location, Bluetooth, text messaging, etc.- create a host of vulnerabilities.  An abusive partner or ex-partner can easily track you using your cell phone.  Spyware and tracking apps are easy to find and cheap. 

The ideal safe option is a burner phone.  Burner or pay-as-you-go phones are available at many major retailers.  Buy one with cash and keep it in a safe place – like a (non-mutual) family member or friend’s house.  Once you leave, turn your old cell phone off, remove the battery, and do not turn it on again. Use the burner phone to set up your new life.  Once you are safely in your new situation, you can get a new smartphone with a new phone number, cell phone plan, and cloud storage account. We know it’s a pain in the neck to change your cell phone number and all of the apps and storage associated with your preferred operating system, but your safety is the number one priority.

If you must keep the same device – factory reset/wipe it. This restores the phone to the factory settings and purges all apps that are not preloaded by default by the seller or manufacturer.  There are no known commercially available stalkerware apps that can survive a factory reset. Simply deleting files or apps is not enough. Once the phone has been completely wiped and reset to factory settings, install a security suite: OSE recommends Lookout Mobile Security for detecting stalkerware. Many smartphone users do not use malware protection on their phones like they do with their computers. Doing so will help prevent stalkerware from being installed or downloaded in the first place.  

There are also device wiping tools available online such as WipeDrive and Blanccowhich erase all data and the operating system. A DIY guide is available here. If you’re not comfortable DIY-ing it, you can take it to the Microsoft or Apple store, or Computer Repair Doctor or Geek Squad type of service. 

If you cannot part with your smartphone and haven’t yet had a chance to wipe it, there are some tips that can keep you safer as you escape an abuser:

  1. Turn any “find my phone” types of apps off
  2. Turn off any location sharing settings within applications or accounts 
  3. Disable wifi, bluetooth and GPS/location services 
  4. For Android users, OSE recommends using Brave as your default browser and using Signal for communication. You may have heard of Signal before — many high-profile journalists rely on Signal to communicate securely with sources. 

Preventing Unauthorized Access to Your Accounts

Change your passwords on everything.  We mean EVERYTHING. From your Facebook account to your bank account, access to any account can help your abuser to track your location.  When it comes to password security, don’t use anything your ex-partner can guess. Security questions should be ones that an abuser cannot answer and that a thorough Google search cannot reveal (Example:  Do not use your mother’s maiden name or your high school mascot).  

Set up two-factor authorization for as many accounts as you possibly can.  Try to prevent physical access to the phone if it is safe/possible to do so.

 

Social Media Safety

When escaping from domestic violence, you should avoid social media.  We know it’s hard—social media has become such a big part of our lives.  However, social media apps can cause you to “check-in” to certain locations, and photographs can be reverse-engineered to give away the exact location a photograph was taken down to the GPS coordinates, and posts can unintentionally reveal your safety plan.  Even if you post something to a private group or a select group of followers, there is nothing to prevent one of those followers from sharing or screenshotting your post and sharing it in a way that makes it back to your abuser.  While these actions might violate a group’s rules or a website’s terms of service, it won’t un-ring the bell if your abuser finds out your location because someone did this.  Again, the safest option is to temporarily stay off social media.

Additionally, make sure your friends and family are extra cautious about posting on social media.  You don’t want them to inadvertently share your location or activities by posting what may seem like an innocuous photo, tipping off an abuser you do not want to find you.  

 

Domestic Violence Resources

Many other Domestic Violence resources are available, including ones that information about using technology safely. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has technology safety resources available in several languages. 

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE. They have a chat feature as well, and can talk you through the specifics of your situation. 

Bottom line:   There is no 100% perfect security plan – update your security practices regularly as technology and digital security is constantly evolving. 

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