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4 Takeaways from Our Panel on Tech Abuse

By Amanda Booth

The mention of technology surveillance often conjures images of big tech companies tracking us across the internet for profit or FBI agents trawling through emails. But such surveillance also rears its head in intimate partner violence. 

The Cyber Policy and Gender Violence Initiative recently hosted a panel on state of tech-enabled domestic abuse with the Coalition Against Stalkerware. Members of the coalition come from industry, academia, domestic violence non-profits, and civil liberties organizations. Their mission is to educate the public and policymakers on the dangers of tech abuse. 

Here’s a quick recap of what the panel discussed:  

Defining abuse and domestic violence 

Intimate partner abuse and domestic violence involve patterns of abusive and coercive behaviors to gain power and control over another person.  

“It’s not just physical,” Erica Olson of the National Network to End Domestic Violence explained. “It’s sexual, financial, and emotional. It includes tactics to isolate a person, to harm their reputation, which can impact their ability to be believed when they disclose abuse.”  

These tactics are also used to destroy a victim’s ability to gain independence.  

The rise of tech abuse

Abusers increasingly use technology to carry out domestic violence, teen dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. These techniques, unfortunately, arose rapidly, and domestic violence shelters are still learning to navigate tech-enabled abuse.

“When I started out doing this, it was definitely considered more of a side conversation —  and something really only talked about in a safety plan if somebody coming and seeking services raised it somehow,” Erica said.  

“But today… it’s regularly a part of most cases of abuse and tactics of tech abuse are woven throughout all other forms of abuse.” 

Tech abuse is when an abuser: 

  • tracks location and activity with smart devices and hidden cameras
  • releases personal information online (doxxing)
  • limits access to technology
  • commits fraud in order to hurt someone’s credit score
  • posts intimate or doctored images without consent to harm someone’s reputation 
  • sends threatening or abusive content 

We’ve seen a rise of tech abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. The most common tactics were harassment, limiting access to technology, and surveillance.  

What is stalkerware? 

In less than a minute, an abuser can install a full suite of surveillance software on a victim’s phone. Abusers often use coercion to temporarily gain this access.  

Stalkerware applications are not permitted on both Apple’s and Google’s app stores, but they often slip through by posing as something innocuous, like a calculator.   

4 takeaways from our panel 

Stalkerware laws vary across state lines 

The legality of stalkerware is complicated.  

If a company markets stalkerware explicitly for the purpose of breaking the law, that in itself could be breaking the law. In the panel, Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation showed a YouTube stalkerware advertisement. This ad showed how a man caught his partner cheating by using stalkerware. He then gave her a black eye.  

Despite its invasiveness, stalkerware is only illegal in “two party consent” states. These laws required both people on a phone call to consent to recording.  The vast majority of states, however, are “one party consent” states, meaning that victims have no legal recourse towards stalkerware being forcibly downloaded onto their phone. 


The stalkerware industry is a hotbed for data leaks 

According to TechCrunch, over a dozen stalkerware companies have compromised user data in the last few years.  

“Not only do we have a company, which is making a product which enables abuse, but they’re doing such a poor job of securing the information that’s exfiltrated that they are opening the targets of this abuse to even further abuse,” Eva explained.  


Victims of tech abuse can’t just “stay offline” 

These days, being online means having access to a bank account, staying in touch with your loved ones, and finding basic services.  

“Not only is it not reasonable in today’s age [to disconnect from all devices] … but you also need it to connect to your support network,” Thomas Ristenpart, Associate Professor at Cornell Tech, said. 


Tech abuse is broader than just stalkerware 

While stalkerware is no doubt a serious problem, abusers more often take advantage of common pieces of technology.  

Apple AirTags, for example, can be hidden in a victim’s belongings in order to track their location. While Apple sends notifications to iPhone users if an AirTag not linked to their device moves around with them, Android users don’t have the same protections. Instead, an AirTag makes a sound if it’s away from the device it’s linked to after 72 hours. In short, Apple has built in some protections from abuse, but they’re by no means bulletproof.  


Couldn’t make the panel? 

If you weren’t able to come to the panel (or just want to watch it again), you can still watch the recording.