Sting may deny that his 1983 song, “Every breath you take,” is a stalker’s anthem, but the lyrics certainly seemed to anticipate technological stalking before the technology to do so had even been created.
I hear a lot of stories from women about how their abusive former partners use technology to harass, threaten and intimidate them. While they can sound like they have been taken from a science fiction or horror movie, they are all too true.
Of course, the technology itself does not create abuse or abusers, but it does put a new weapon in their hands, especially post-separation, when many abusers are looking for ways to let their former partners know who is in charge.
Eyes in the sky
A legal support worker recently told me that one of her clients was being spied on by her former partner via a drone equipped with a camera that he flew over her home. He told their child that he could look in the windows to see what they were doing and, if the mother did not do what he wanted, he would attach a gun to the drone and kill her.
I have since heard similar stories from other workers and, presently, the law does not prohibit such use of drones.
Fortunately, new rules for the operation of personal drones come into effect across the country on June 1st. Anyone flying a drone must follow provincial and territorial trespass laws and laws related to voyeurism and privacy.
Whether this will slow down a determined stalker and whether women will feel safe enough to report illegal use of drones by their former partners remains to be seen, but the new rules at least provide a starting point to limit use of this particular strategy.
More and more women are reporting other kinds of in-house spying: the abusive former partner who gives the child a piece of technology (for example, a tablet) that he has loaded with spyware or a video camera or who places a nanny cam inside a stuffed toy that returns to the mother’s home with the child. Men who have access to their former partner’s home hide spy cameras throughout the house.
Hack, hack, hack
Online hacking is nothing new, but it is a serious problem for a woman with an abusive partner. If he knows her passwords – to her email account, her social media, her bank or telephone accounts and so on – he can monitor her activities and manipulate, add to or delete her information. If, as is not uncommon, these accounts are in his name, he can stop paying the bills or shut the service down entirely, without her knowing about it.
He can also put apps on her devices without her knowledge, even remotely, including GPS and vehicle tracking technology that lets him know where she is all the time.
Smart but not safe
When I was in a friend’s home recently, I was cold and wanted to turn the heat up. As I looked at the thermostat, I saw the temperature change by three degrees. This was my introduction to smart house technology: my friend, who was at work, knew I was at the house and thought she would warm it up for me, which she could do from her phone.
No harm done, other than my short-lived excitement that the thermostat had been able to anticipate my needs, but such is not the case for some women with abusive partners. Smart home technology allows people to remotely control the locks, lights, window coverings, appliances, TVs, sound systems, thermostats and more. How much easier gaslighting is now than it was for Charles Boyer in his campaign of terror against Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film “Gaslight.”
Women report being awakened during the night when their former partner, miles away, turns on the sound system at high volume; having meals ruined when he turns off the oven; suffering through extreme temperatures when he manipulates the thermostat. For women who do not even know there is smart technology in their home, it can truly feel as though they are going mad. Even when the woman knows it’s there, if it is in the former partner’s name, addressing it can be complicated and time-consuming.
What to do?
As technological abuse becomes more widespread, women’s advocates have learned more about how to support women who are being subjected to it. For example, many shelters now require women to turn off any geolocation technology on their phones, tablets or laptops when they are on the premises.
While any use of technology creates an opening for abuse, there are ways to use it that are safer. The first step is for the woman to assess whether her partner may be spying on her or talking/harassing her through her technology. Then, she can take action to limit what he can do.
For example, she can keep her existing email account but open a new one, with a password her former partner won’t be able to figure out, for her regular use. She can turn to public access computers when she needs to use the internet. She can get a new cell phone, with an account that is in her name only. Privacy settings can be updated; firewalls and anti-spyware protection installed and apps removed. Perhaps most difficult (and unfair) for some women: they can change how they use social media, limiting what they post, text or email about to reduce the abuser’s access to information that he can try to use against her.
Sting’s claim that “you belong to me” notwithstanding, women have the right to leave abusive partners and be left alone by them.