“Stranger danger” has been used frequently to describe online threats, particularly those facing minors. However, one of the most serious digital dangers facing some individuals is posed by those who likely know the Internet user the best, such as a former spouse or significant other. Increasing domestic abusers are turning to technology to harass, threaten, and/or stalk their victims. This has become known as “digital domestic violence.” Use of technology to stalk or harass, has been since almost since the Internet’s inception. In the mid-1990’s, we started seeing the term “cyberstalking” and cyber harassment being coined in recognition of how individuals were using electronic communications to victimize others. Digital domestic violence (DDV) is more narrowly focused on those who use technology against a former girl/boyfriend or spouse. It can include using the Internet to:
- Research methods and means to harass or stalk their victims;
- Keep track and follow their victim’s movements and habits, frequently by accessing social media, either with or without global positioning information;
- Transmitting and/or accessing computer monitoring software reports installed on victim’s computer or devices;
- Transmit actual threats or harassment towards their victim; and
- Facilitate the use of other technologies in DDV, such as GPS trackers, cell phone tracking, and remote video/audio surveillance.
One’s former significant other or spouse, is in a unique position to wreak digital chaos on their victim’s lives. This is because of trust. The victim at some point in the relationship likely trusted their future attacker. With trust can come access to the victim’s computer and/or mobile devices. Prior to the relationship’s termination, the offender may have searched the device, viewing browsing history, e-mails, text messages, etc. They may have also left their e-mail account or social media profile opened. This access also may have allowed the future attacker to install monitoring software unbeknownst to the victim. Monitoring software by the way is very easy to install on computers and mobile devices. It is rather inexpensive, free versions are available, and depending upon the vendor, the results can be reviewed via the Internet, without direct access to the device that it is installed on.
Even if the victim did not provide access to their devices, they may have accessed their e-mail and/or social media from their future attacker’s own device. It isn’t that uncommon for a trusting girlfriend to check on their social media profile or e-mail via their boyfriend’s lap top or computer. They might not have been completely logged off when they were done, allowing the boyfriend to gain access. Even if they did log off, depending upon the offender’s technical sophistication, the password may be able to be recovered from their system at a later date. An unsophisticated offender may have even installed monitoring software on their own computer to capture passwords of unsuspected users for later retrieval. These are not the only methods to gain access to a victim’s digital life. Other cyber-criminal’s rely on methods, such as social engineering, to get passwords. Because of trust, a future attacker, may know their victim’s passwords to e-mail accounts and social media profiles. DDV offenders unlike strangers, know their victims, their friends, their habits, their history, etc.. If they don’t know the passwords, they likely know the answers to challenge questions to reset them. They know a lot about their victims, which can be used to trick them into providing information, getting them to install a program, such as monitoring software, or unknowingly add them as an “old” school friend in their social media circle. Other DDV offenders focus at the start with more direct methods of harassment and/or threats, such as sending messages or posting on social media profiles.
Victims should make sure to print out or take screen shots of all harassing or threatening messages so they can be provided to law enforcement. These posts can be quickly dealt with by reports to law enforcement and service providers and electronically blocking the offender from sending or posting messages. However, if the DDV offender still manages to electronically get to their victim, it may be that they have gotten access to the victim’s accounts and/or installed monitoring software. At a minimum, individuals involved in a bad break up with no violence, need to change all passwords to all accounts. They should also consider removing their former partner from their social media circles or at a minimum imposing restrictions on what they can access. Additionally, it is important to turn off GPS tracking on one’s mobile devices (cell phone, I-Pads, Windows Tablets, etc.) as well as for digital cameras (Digital cameras will embed GPS coordinates in the meta-data of image files created). If it appears that their former partner is still gaining access to them or following them they may wish to either get new devices or have their old ones checked for monitoring software (this can be costly but effective). In cases where violence occurred, victims need to immediately stop using their devices until they are deemed safe and gain access to new or trusted devices. In all cases where DDV is occurring victims need to contact law enforcement and seek help from resources such as those listed below. Obviously, victims should not use an untrusted device to make these contacts as their attacker may be monitoring them. (The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233 TTY: 1-800-787-3224).