Auditing technology allows people to make sure they’re not being tracked by ex-partners
Leaving an abusive relationship is scary, hard — and complicated. Many survivors find that their lives are so intertwined with the lives of their abusers that it can feel impossible to leave. In fact, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it takes an average of seven times leaving an abuser before a survivor gets away for good.
It’s important to note that this entanglement isn’t an accident. Abusers isolate people from their family and friends and then seek ways to ramp up control once their partner is essentially hidden from view. And, unfortunately, technology plays an increasingly prominent role in how abusers control their victims. It’s called “stalkerware.”
“Stalkerware is a growing category of domestic malware with disturbing and dangerous implications,” Jaya Baloo, Avast CISO, previously told Avast. “It steals the physical and online freedom of the victim. Usually installed secretly on mobile phones by so-called friends, jealous spouses, ex-partners, and even concerned parents, stalkerware tracks the physical location of the victim, monitors sites visited on the internet, text messages, and phone calls.”
Unfortunately, there has been an uptick in both domestic violence and stalkerware during the Covid-19 pandemic: Avast Threat Labs researchers observed a 51% increase in spyware and stalkerware from March to June 2020, when compared with the first two months of the year. That increase makes it imperative that people who are leaving an abusive relationship do an audit of their technology to make sure they’re not being tracked by their abuser. Here’s a checklist of seven tech things to do when leaving an abusive relationship.
If you don’t already have your lock screen on your phone set up, do that now. And even if you do have it set up, change your PIN to something completely random so that your abuser can’t figure it out. The same goes for iPads and passwords on any laptops or desktops. Physical access to your devices gives your abuser an immediate view into so many personal aspects of your life, so the first step to protecting yourself is that passcode or password.
Antivirus isn’t just for stuff coming in from outside anymore — it’s also for detecting what we call “potentially unwanted programs” (PUPs), which include stalkerware, malware, and other potentially malicious apps. Avast Mobile Security will let you know if your phone has any PUPs. In fact, we helped Google remove eight of the most common stalkerware apps from their Play Store last year.
“Across the globe, it’s been reported that the number of domestic violence cases have consistently increased during lockdown,” Baloo says, “and that tallies with what we’re seeing. We’re committed to doing all that we can to protect our users from this rising threat.”
Once you’ve removed unwanted apps with Avast Mobile Security, run a quick check to see if we missed anything. We don’t think we will, but sometimes things slip through the cracks and we’d rather you be safe than anything else. Reboot your phone into safe mode, go to Settings, and tap Apps or Apps & Notifications. You can uninstall anything you don’t recognize right from there.
How to spot the signs of stalkerware on your phone
Find My is a great tool that helps Apple users track down missing and stolen devices and also stay in touch with loved ones. But, unfortunately, it’s can also be used by an abusive partner to track your movements. Make sure that your ex is kicked off of Find My to ensure they won’t be able to tell where you are when you leave.
Unless you tell it not to, Google will keep track of your location history. Disable any shared Google accounts to ensure that they don’t have access to that data. Alternatively, you can turn off location tracking in Google Maps, which might be less obvious to your abuser than kicking them out completely.
Google Maps, iMessages, and Facebook Messenger let people share their locations with whomever they choose. But when you’re leaving an abusive relationship, this feature can be used to track you. Go into all three and double check that you haven’t left location sharing on, even if you never remember using it in the first place, because your ex partner could have turned it on without your knowledge.
When you’re ready to leave, reach out for help and support. It’s worth considering using someone else’s device, if that’s an option, as your partner might still have access to yours. Search for domestic violence support organizations in your area and remember — you can do this.
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Users need to protect themselves with a VPN when they use free Wi-Fi, because areas of such low security can be a haven for hackers to execute malware distribution, man-in-the-middle attacks, packet sniffing, and other threats.