By Yulia Federov
Imagine being in an abusive relationship. Imagine the fear that arises when you think about leaving. Now, imagine that when you finally gather the courage to do so, it’s too late—because no matter where you go, your abuser will know exactly where you are.
No, this isn’t the plot for a sci-fi movie—it’s real life.
A lengthy report published in June of 2019 by Citizen Lab, a research centre at the University of Toronto, reveals that technological tracking through the use of spyware apps is on the rise in abusive relationships. Aptly termed “stalkerware,” these apps are often targeted to parents as a way to keep track of their children—but as the report reveals, they’re often being used for more nefarious purposes, by abusive partners.
“You don’t have to be a skilled hacker to have access to [stalkerware], you really just need to have access to your phone, and to the internet,” says Lieran Docherty, program manager at the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto, a policy development and planning body which seeks novel approaches to provide abused women with the support they need. The ease of obtaining stalkerware, as Docherty notes, is what makes it most dangerous—within a few minutes, anyone who has the passcode to their partner’s phone can download an app which will keep track of everything from their location, to their call logs, texts, and sometimes even their camera and microphone.
As the Citizen Lab report says, stalkerware users are breaking a host of laws—and yet, because of the lack of a crackdown on these apps, little is being done to enforce them. The law is not on the side of women experiencing this extra layer of technological harassment from an abusive partner. “In the criminal court system, the onus is on the abused to prove that she’s being stalked. This can be really difficult to do,” says Sojie Tate - Communications and Human Resources Manager at Women’s Habitat, a women’s shelter and outreach centre in Etobicoke. “It’s not easy to be able to prove ‘he showed up at this location that I was at,’ because well, maybe that was a coincidence.”
This level of suspicion from the law might seem unwarranted, and yet it’s extremely common in such cases. “Women will report being told, ‘why did you give him access to your phone, or ‘how does he have access to your password or pin number,’” Docherty says. This is one of the greatest hurdles for women experiencing technological stalking from an abusive partner. It’s difficult enough for victims of abuse to seek legal counsel—but the unfortunate truth is that once they do, most are subjected to an unjust level of scrutiny.
“I think it’s the responsibility of the government and of law enforcement to begin to take this seriously and to understand how it is impacting survivors and victims,” Docherty says, of the reforms that have to be made. “I think it’s also up to the tech companies to take this seriously and understand how their software can be used to perpetuate violence against women.”
The only way for this progress to happen is through an awareness of these extra layers of abuse, and how they impact victims. “There needs to be an education in the court system with police and with the general public about how this affects women, how it affects children, how it impedes on them being able to live their lives,” says Tate.
But these are all long-term goals. Unfortunately, few victims of abuse have the luxury to wait until legal reforms are made, and stalkerware is finally recognized as a threat to safety. So what should someone who believes they are being cyber stalked by an abusive partner do, in the meanwhile?
“In many cases, women will receive very unhelpful advice. They’re told to either change their passwords, stay off social media, or not use certain apps,” Docherty says. While this type of advice might be well intentioned, it does not take into account the nature of an abusive relationship, and the level of danger that enraging an abusive partner can put on a victim. “In some cases that can actually increase a woman’s risk. If one day she’s allowing her partner to use her phone and in the next day that partner doesn’t have access - that can actually aggravate the abuser.”
Tate shares similar concerns over getting rid of one’s technology in order to ward off abuse—especially in the case of women with children going through divorce proceedings. Not only would changing their and their children’s devices be costly, but it would also lead them to face suspicion from a legal standpoint if their children have zero contact with their father. “I would advise [victims] to get in touch with us, get in touch with other women’s’ service providers who have an understanding of gender-based violence, and can provide them with some support from that perspective,” she explains.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing abuse from a partner, you can contact Women’s Habitat at their 24/7 shelter and crisis line, (416) 252-5829.
For more information on the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto, and how you can volunteer or contribute to their agency, click here.