Rachel Gibson, the senior technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, was working with a client who was getting harassed through her electronic equipment.
The woman disconnected her Alexa-enabled device. That brought her abuser to her home.
The client’s former partner “showed up at her house and said, ‘I can no longer hear you on the phone. I can no longer turn your lights off. Why did you do that?’ and proceeded to assault her,” Gibson said.
Another one of Gibson’s clients suffered from a partner who used her Nest device to turn the heat all the way up throughout the house — the only escape she had for herself and her dog was the bathroom.
This kind of digital abuse is increasingly being used as smart devices become. more widely adopted. It creates another category for victims and survivors to consider as they leave an harmful or manipulative relationship.
When leaving or ending an abusive relationship, experts recommend taking digital inventory and then making decisions about whether to lock an abuser out of accounts and their life on the Internet.
As stay-at-home orders began lifting, the number of calls, chats and texts reporting abuse increased by 15 percent in April compared to April 2019, according to data provided by the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Because of the nuances involved in any relationship, experts do not recommend immediately changing passwords or blocking partners from accounts and social media, as it could alert the abuser to a planned move or spur more violence.
The most important rule of thumb to keep in mind is that there are no one set of rules or guidance. Rather, advocates recommend an audit of levels of exposure and risk.
“They’re definitely a couple things that everybody should keep in mind, but giving anyone a checklist is actually dangerous,” Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said.
“One of the things that I recommend when you are preparing to leave is to make a list of all of your accounts and everything that has a login. Just start with that,” Galperin said.
If you do decide to lock down your accounts — social media, email, online shopping — Galperin recommends a password manager to change the new passwords to something unique and strong.
“You may not want to do this because it’s possible that locking your abuser out of your account will alert them that you are leaving or will anger them and cause them to escalate violence,” Galperin said. “But if you want to lock them out of the accounts this is how you do it. Then for every account you turn on the highest level of two-factor authentication (2FA) you’re comfortable with.”
If you are concerned about your cellphone, Galperin advises calling your service provider and adding a pin to the account. Do not share it. If you’re concerned about stalkerware, she recommends locking your accounts first, and if it seems that the abuser still has access to personal details, run anti-virus software that is especially vigilant about stalkerware.
Galperin also recommends advising friends and family about your actions so that they don’t tag you in social media posts or reveal your whereabouts or other details.
Gibson recommends a similar approach and advises survivors to consider what kind of information their abuser has.
“Do they know that they are being tracked by someone? Do they think that their social media is being monitored? If so, what information do they have? Does this person know that they went to McDonald’s at 2 a.m. on a Thursday? Or do they know that their computer went to sleep at 3 a.m.? Do they know that they talked to their mom for eight hours about ‘Gilmore Girls?’” Gibson said.
She herself went through a psychologically abusive relationship.
Gibson found herself empowered by technology, and said that in a situation like hers, where she lived far away from her friends and family, cutting off texts, emails and social media would have further isolated her and made her more vulnerable to abuse. She could in turn monitor her abuser’s moods by his posts.
“At no point do we ever advocate for survivors having to get off technology or stop using technology because it’s not about the technology. These are behaviors that were happening way before. It’s not about the tech, it’s really about the kind of abusive behaviors that someone chooses to exhibit.”