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Social Workers Warn Mobile Phones Could Be Putting Women in Danger

For all the supposed safety technology offers us, it can also be used against women who have fled domestic violence.

by Sophia Softky
10 July 2015, 2:20pm

'Phone photography' by Petar Milošević. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I'm in my early 20s and consider myself a digital native. But the difference mobile technology has made in my life since high school is staggering. In the days before Google Maps, Find My Friends, and Uber, I printed out maps, painstakingly arranged rendezvous with friends, hailed cabs late at night, or called them on my pink Motorola Razr. A lot of the time no one knew where I was, and if I found myself lost or stuck help wasn't an Uber ride away. Life today seems much safer.

But for all the supposed safety technology offers us, Australian social workers are seeing a dramatic uptick in the use of technology against women who have fled domestic violence. "There is much more technology being used when men stalk women," says Virginia Geddes, program manager at the Domestic Violence Resource Center Victoria, "and that's reflected in the surveys we do." According to a February 2015 survey conducted by the DVRCV, 98 percent of domestic violence sector workers report having clients who have experienced technology-facilitated abuse, and 74 percent report the use of GPS technology in smartphone apps to stalk their clients. That's increased from 29 percent in 2013.

For some of the most vulnerable members of society the consequences of mobile connectivity can be dire. Another report, the DVRCV's Submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence, states: "technology provides perpetrators with easy, accessible, instantaneous, and potentially more public methods to control, monitor, and shame women."

It details that technology can make it more difficult to separate from an abusive partner because texting and GPS tracking mean a perpetrator can, "create a sense of omnipresence in his ex‐partner's life, making her feel that she can never truly escape him."

For these women and their families, keeping the location of their refuges or new homes secret is paramount for safety, but in the digital age that secrecy is difficult to guarantee. Security breaches at shelters are increasingly common, with vengeful and violent ex-partners gaining access via bugged phones and GPS tracking devices hidden in cars and children's toys. Going off-grid is not a viable solution either, because technology and social media are also valuable lifelines to friends and family during a very difficult and isolating time.

In daily life, it's easy to dismiss warnings about data security and personal safety. Apps and smart phones have made everyday tasks easier, and the convenience they offer can eclipse other concerns. But even familiar apps can leave women vulnerable.

One example of this is Uber. Despite billing itself as a safer option than taxis, Uber has a documented woman problem, and there is plenty of evidence the app's tracking features and display of personal contact information (even technically de-identified) exposes female riders and drivers alike to stalking and harassment.

Kate, who lives in Melbourne, woke up the morning after an Uber ride to a friend request from her driver with no idea of how he had found her. "I had barely spoken to him. I didn't think my account was linked to Facebook, and I use a different name and email address," she said. When Kate reported the incident to Uber, the company merely responded to say the driver had been deactivated, but gave no indication as to what personal information he had access to or how he had tracked her online.

Kate's story is made all the more unsettling in light of news at the end of last month that Uber quietly updated its privacy policy to enable access to even more passenger information. Under the new terms, which come into effect this month, Uber will track passenger locations and IP addresses 24/7. Passenger contacts, messages between riders and drivers, and riders' social media accounts will be accessible even when the app is not running.

Leonie Smith, who has worked as a cyber security consultant and educator for over 20 years, warns that the risks aren't confined to Uber. She feels there needs to be more awareness around geo-location technology.

"There is geolocation in practically every app on your phone, even the camera and browsers," she says. "On Facebook you can't switch these features off, and the fragmented way they've set up their privacy settings makes it very difficult to have a reasonably private account."

While apps that have tracking features may undermine individual security incidentally, there are plenty of new technologies designed to do precisely that. Connect, Trick or Tracker, Phone Tracker, and TopSpyApp are advertised as "innocent" ways to keep track of children, spouses, and employees.

According to Smith, "on the one hand you've got parents who use tracking to help locate their kids, which can be very useful, but lots of so-called parenting apps, like mSpy for instance, are very open to abuse by people who mean harm rather than good." Spyware companies such as mSpy or flexiSPY even market directly to jealous partners, offering apps that can be covertly installed on a mobile device (sometimes remotely) without the owner of that device being aware. Using the spyware, stalkers can not only use geotracking to keep tabs on a victim's whereabouts, but can access every private photo, text message, phone call, tap and swipe on the device.

Even knowing all this, I'm still glued to my iPhone. Most of the time, it doesn't feel unsafe to post geotagged pictures to Instagram, check in at restaurants, on Facebook, catch a ride with Uber, or tell my significant other my passcodes. But given what we know—that one in five Australian women have experienced domestic violence, that incidences of domestic violence and stalking are actually increasing in frequency, that 48 women have been murdered in this country since January—the stakes for being so cavalier with our privacy are too high. It may just be that my teenage self, alone, untrackable, and with only a dumb phone for company, was as safe as I've ever been.

Despite the worrying reports, it is possible to manage risks without totally unplugging. Organizations like WIRE and Safe Steps recommend measures like turning off the geolocation feature in your phone when you're not using it, regularly clearing browser histories, disabling cookies, changing passwords every couple of months (switching between your dog's name and "1234" doesn't count), and combing through the privacy settings on your social media platforms. If you suspect someone has installed spyware on your device or is monitoring your email account, stop using them immediately and get new ones, under a different name if possible.

Hopefully one day creeps and data-hungry corporations won't exist, but in the meantime nobody needs to know how often you Google "best doughnuts near me" on company time. Safety first.

Follow Sophia on Twitter.

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