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Online safety tips for domestic abuse survivors

Access to accounts and devices can be a way of stalking or hurting someone even after a separation. Taking back control of our digital lives requires time and understanding of technology, putting another burden on the person who is already dealing with abuse. It can be overwhelming. So this week, we’re going to cover some of the basics for a reader dealing with an all too common situation.

My ex-husband has all of my credentials and knows all my family information and is stalking me. How do I set up a whole new phone and laptop system where he cannot access it any longer?

Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that each person’s situation is unique and you can call an expert for detailed advice for your situation. Start with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233, which can help with legal, digital, mental health or safety advice and resources. These tech steps are for people who no longer live with their abuser. In those situations, the technology piece is different because it’s easier for someone else to access your devices directly.

For Lisa, who’s last name is withheld for safety reasons, a core part of the problem is her log-ins. As an Android user, her Google account might still be linked with an older device that her ex has in his possession. He also knows all of her most sensitive security information, including her social security number, security questions and answers like her mother’s maiden name. Here is where she, and anyone in a similar situation, can start.

Have a safety plan: Before the basics like changing a password or getting a new phone number, consider what repercussions there might be and how best to handle them.

“There are two risks that come with taking action. One of those is the risk of escalation — if he suddenly finds he doesn’t have access to her anymore, is he going to come in person? Find other ways to monitor her?” said Toby Shulruff, a technology safety project manager at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She recommends having a safety plan ready, which might include important phone numbers and safe locations.

Document everything: Another risk of taking action is that you could lose evidence of the other person’s wrongdoing. If you’re in a position where showing proof that you’re being stalked or monitored could be important — say for getting a restraining order — take screenshots of anything relevant like messages or proof they were accessing your accounts.

If you’re documenting communications like text messages, be sure to have the exact date on the screen instead of just “today,” said Hannah Meropol, an associate at C.A. Goldberg, a law firm specializing in victim’s rights.

Make a list: Now it’s time to make a list of all your devices and accounts. This will include your cell carrier, email account, online banking log-in, any social media sites and less obvious things like Netflix. Write down any devices you use, as well as any you think may be in possession of the other person. You’ll want to pay special attention to anything that has shared access, like family plans for phones, Shulruff said. If you still use any shared services like a streaming account or Amazon Prime, you’ll want to leave them and start your own or remove the other person’s access if it’s your account.

It’s password time: Change all your passwords, even the ones for accounts you don’t think are risky. Each one will need to be unique, completely different from any used before, not just a word with the number changed at the end, and nothing guessable like a pet name or your birthday. There is no way around this step, but there are some things you can do to make it easier. First, because you’re more concerned about a regular human than a cyberattack, you can choose phrase passwords like HATSHARKPOTATOPANTS. Second, if you have the bandwidth and desire to learn a new application, we highly recommend using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password. These applications keep track of all those passwords for you, can generate new ones, and alert you when any are weak. If that sounds overwhelming, you can keep a list in a notebook as long as it’s stored someplace safe.

Turn on multi-factor authentication: This feature is available on most services now in their security settings, and it just means you’ll use a code or special app in addition to a password. If an ex has your password, they wouldn’t be able to use it on its own to access accounts. You will often need to do this extra step only once on a new device. If you already have this setting turned on, make sure the phone number is your current one and not an old landline or shared number.

Change backup contacts: Many online accounts have an option to add a backup contact. These were intended as a safety feature, but in cases of intimate partner violence, they can be the opposite. Go back through your list and check account information settings to make sure your partner, or a shared email or phone number, isn’t your alternative. (If you’ve ever set up legacy contacts, update those ASAP as well.)

Do a social network checkup: Gathering information about you doesn’t always require accessing your accounts directly. Shared friends can screenshot or copy and paste your posts and pass them on, and public accounts can be viewed by anyone. Check your friend lists, weed out anyone you don’t trust, and make accounts private. If you do share photos or updates, don’t include location information. Whereas the previous changes were all security related, these fixes fall under privacy. We have a detailed privacy guide on all the settings you should change.

Cut off all other access: Most new phones and computers are set up to back up data and photos to the cloud, sync to other devices or use location services so you can find them if lost. These features can all be used to track you if someone else still has access, even if it’s just one of your old phones. This might be part of what is happening with Lisa.

You’ll want to sever all of these connections and start fresh. On your phone and computer, check any location services for lost devices like Apple’s Find My. Make sure you’re the only person listed as having access, and disconnect any old or unknown devices. On many apps, like Google and Facebook, you can see what other apps or devices have been given access in the past and revoke that access. You can also sometimes see what devices or locations accessed your accounts and when. (Screenshot anything suspicious.)

If you use any cloud accounts for storage, like Dropbox, or just photos, like Google Photos, go in and see what devices they are synced with. Remove anything that isn’t yours and in your home. On Google Photos, make sure you don’t have partner sharing still set up.

Stalkerware — applications secretly installed just to track people — is a less common form of digital stalking, according to Shulruff. Using existing applications and log-ins is more common and easier. However, if you’re worried about stalkerware, you can take your device to a computer store and have an expert check it out.

The last resort: All of these steps are meant to let the person keep an existing contact information, like an email and phone number, as well as hold on to social media and messaging accounts. Changing them is a huge inconvenience that could cut them off from people in their life.

“Asking her to close off from people she wants to be connected to can be a lot like the isolation a lot of abusers want,” Shulruff said.

However, if the threats are serious enough, and if the other steps aren’t effective at blocking the person out of your digital life, big changes are an option. If you get a new email address, you’ll need to go through and change it on existing accounts or, in some cases, close them and open new ones. Use that address to create a new Google or Apple account for logging into your phone. Keep that old email account open, at least for a while, to access any accounts you may have forgotten to update.

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