If you are a victim of domestic violence, it’s possible your abuser has used technology to control you — and may still be doing so even if you’ve left the relationship.
According to “Tech Abuse: Information From the Field,” a 2018 survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), “technology misuse is often intertwined with other forms of abuse survivors are facing in their daily life.” Only 11% of domestic violence advocates surveyed had not encountered cases involving tech misuse over the past year. Fifty-one percent of the respondents had worked with 1 to 15 cases of technology misuse, and 12% had seen more than 50 cases in that same year. The type of technology misuse reported ranged from spying with hidden cameras to intimidation and threats via technology to recording devices placed inside a personal item.
That same survey showed that only 13% of domestic violence advocates feel totally confident that they have the skills to help victims and survivors with their concerns and challenges involving technology.
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If you are in immediate danger, please call 911, but if you are experiencing domestic violence and seeking help, resources or information, confidential trained advocates are available 24/7/365 at no cost through the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
The list of potential abuses you need to manage as a victim is already lengthy and overwhelming, from financial to emotional to physical. But as statistics show steady year-over-year growth in the number of connected homes, with no end to this trend in sight, ensuring you understand how technology can be used — both against you and to your benefit — is important.
Identify and Understand the Technology Around You
If you’re living with your abuser, or still in a relationship with them in some way, the first step is to take an inventory of what smart technology devices are in your home. Abusers can use internet-, home network-, WiFi-, or Bluetooth-connected speakers, cameras, locks, doorbells and more to harass, stalk, harm and otherwise attempt to control your movements and activities.
They can also use smart toys and items designed to increase children’s safety, such as baby monitors, in invasive ways. NNEDV notes that some toys “come equipped with cameras, microphones, and speakers so the toys can interact with the child,” but most of these toys are not built with strong security protections and may give “unauthorized video or audio access … [that] could be used to stalk, control or harass a survivor.”
Make a list of all the devices you can find in your home and identify who installed them and who has access to the device’s account or app. Some tech is easily visible; other tech, such as motion sensors tucked on book shelves or in room corners, may be less obvious. If you are unsure what devices are currently active in your home, or are concerned some might be hidden, NNEDV has put together a detailed list of gadgets to look for, along with potential tactics abusers may attempt.
A few common household devices the NNEDV includes on its list:
- Smoke detectors
- Video doorbells
- Entertainment systems
- Smart lightbulbs
NNEDV also suggests understanding the Wi-Fi you use and checking that Wi-Fi network history to see what devices are or have been connected. However, it also suggests you don’t simply delete the whole history because that may give your abuser a heads up that you’re looking into these issues.
Don’t simply delete your whole browsing history because that may give your abuser a heads up that you’re looking into these issues.
National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV)
Once you’ve identified what’s being used in your home, educate yourself about how the devices work, how they’re being used and what information they might be tracking. And if you use technology like Google Home, Alexa, and Siri, there are ways you can opt out of the tracking features that come with them. Also figure out how to spot changes in the tech — whether it’s a device that begins working differently or a new device that appears in your home.
And recognize that what’s going on around you in your home may be happening specifically because your abuser is controlling this kind of tech. Graciela Rodriguez, who runs an emergency shelter at the Center for Domestic Peace in San Rafael, California, spoke with The New York Times about what she’s been hearing more recently from those accessing the shelter’s services. She told the New York Times that “some people had recently come in with tales of ‘the crazy-making things’ like thermostats suddenly kicking up to 100 degrees or smart speakers turning on blasting music. They feel like they’re losing control of their home. After they spend a few days here, they realize they were being abused.”
“Technology, in its various forms, offers essential tools victims can use to access help, strategically maintain safety and privacy, and remain connected to family and friends. It can also be used to prove guilt and hold offenders accountable.”
NNEDV’s Safety Net Project
Use Tech to Your Benefit
While it may feel like smart tech is more of a negative than a positive, “technology, in its various forms,” states the NNEDV’s Safety Net Project, “offers essential tools victims can use to access help, strategically maintain safety and privacy, and remain connected to family and friends. It can also be used to prove guilt and hold offenders accountable.”
Keeping a technology abuse log is one suggestion NNEDV makes to all victims because as the organization says, this type of detailed documentation can:
- Give you a record of what is happening, which may be helpful if you want to pursue legal actions.
- Alert you to any escalation in monitoring and control, which may indicate the danger is increasing as well.
- Help you see patterns of the technology abuse and may help determine how the abuser is misusing a particular technology.While The New York Times reports that lawyers are “wrangling with how to add language to restraining orders to cover smart home technology,” it also reports that “advocates are beginning to educate emergency responders that when people get restraining orders, they need to ask the judge to include all smart home device accounts known and unknown to victims.”
While The New York Times reports lawyers are “wrangling with how to add language to restraining orders to cover smart home technology,” it also reports that “advocates are beginning to educate emergency responders that when people get restraining orders, they need to ask the judge to include all smart home device accounts known and unknown to victims.”
If you suspect your abuser may have bugged your phone or installed tracking software, restore the device to factory settings and create a new strong password.
Secure Your Home
When you’ve ended an abusive relationship, it may feel tempting to just unplug and toss everything. But typically there are ways to save and reuse the tech to your benefit. For instance, don’t dump your mobile phone because this may cause you to become isolated from those family and friends who can offer support, as well as cut you off from emergency services. Do, however, separate any combined phone plans you have with your abuser, especially if you’re going to add mobile-app-based security. And if you suspect your abuser may have bugged your phone or installed tracking software, restore the device to factory settings and create a new strong password.
If you’re still living in the home, but the abuser has left, you’ll want to take steps to secure your space. The abuser may still be connected remotely and still using smart devices to intimidate or control you. In this case, other actions to consider taking include:
- Changing your passwords (and consider using a password manager to generate strong passwords in case your abuser has at one time had access to your passwords)
- Changing router or network settings
- Disabling the devices by using reset buttons
- Contacting the device manufacturers and asking them to change account ownership and access
- Using two-factor authentication when resetting device apps
Incorporate Smart Technology Into Your Home and Life
If you’re out of the abusive situation and in control of your own home, individual connected devices can be a wise choice for security. Video doorbells with high-resolution cameras and wide fields of vision let you easily see who’s at or near your door, offering extra security when both expected and unexpected individuals arrive at your home.
Smart locks can be connected to smart lights, so you can illuminate your home before you step inside. Some smart locks come with built-in alarms that go off when there is a forced entry. If you’re concerned you forgot to lock your door before leaving, apps allow you to check in and secure your home remotely.
Full home security systems with intrusion sensors, surveillance videos and safety monitoring capabilities are also an option, as are DIY security systems. Both can offer advanced home automation features, and voice assistant compatibility is becoming more and more standard.
All of the above can help offer some peace of mind, whether your abuser is completely out of the picture or still in contact in some way.
Know You’re Not Alone
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking, and intimate partner violence accounts for 15% of all violent victimizations.
If you are one of those individuals, one additional tech-related safety resource you might want to access is NNEDV’s Tech Safety app, available in English and Spanish, which helps “identify technology-facilitated harassment, stalking or abuse,” and offers tips on what to do in six categories: harassment, impersonation, cellphone safety, device safety, location safety and online safety. Within each category, the app shares “specific explanations on what someone can do if they are being harassed, as well as privacy tips that can be used to increase privacy and security.” While NNEDV clearly states the information the app shares is not meant to be a comprehensive safety plan, it does provide resources on where to call for help and how to document abuse, work with a domestic violence advocate, contact the police, and find an attorney.
Whether you are currently in a violent relationship or a survivor of domestic violence, you may feel alone, but you are not. And there are many ways to once again feel safe and secure in your own home.
If You Are In Danger
If you are in immediate danger, please call 911, but if you are experiencing domestic violence and seeking help, resources or information, confidential trained advocates are available 24/7/365 at no cost through the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Call them at 1-800-799-7233 (1-800-787-3224 for TTY) or, if you are certain that your computer or mobile phone is not being monitored by your abuser or a third-party, chat with an advocate through the NDVH website.
Illustrations by Nastia Kobzarenko