Smartphones and Domestic Violence Stalking

Yesterday on NPR’s radio news show All Things Considered there was a story about smartphone spyware and the way male abusers can use smartphone’s GPS, microphone, and other features to track and stalk their victims. There were several angles of this story that interested me. For one, it relates to the intersection of gender and technology, which I’ve always loved investigating. I’m currently reading an academic psychology book, “Gender and Computers: Understanding the Digital Divide” which has got me thinking a lot about the different ways different genders perceive and interact with the technology around them, as well as how and by whom that technology is designed. But this is not what struck me the most.

The story made known what I had already known, that using technology to spy on another person is not just something the NSA can do but something that any moderately technologically savvy person can do. While I appreciated the fact that this reality was being discussed, I found that the way the story was presented was extremely problematic.

An Advertisement for Stalking Software

The way the story was presented made it sound almost like a commercial for the spying software itself. The story focused mainly on one particular product. The story played a short promotional clip from the product’s company, it mentioned both the monthly and annual price (with the reporting noting how cheap it was), and mentioned the product’s name seven times in under four minutes. The reporter says, “[product name] is easy to install… [product name] has a step by step guide with screenshots on how to download the app onto an iPhone or Android, how to activate it, and then how to delete any visible trace of it” before going on to detail each of the software’s powerful features in its “really nice dashboard to organize all the information you’re grabbing”.

spying

I don’t mind the fact that the story explicitly enumerates the different ways a smartphone can be turned into a spy tool (gps tracking, microphone eavesdropping, call recording, password stealing etc) or that the story emphasizes how easy it is for a stalker to achieve this. These details make the story more real and hopefully give the story a greater impact, alerting women to this potential danger. However, constantly mentioning the product by name, and noting how cheap and easy and capable the software is, may just act to promote the use of such software by abusers.

Ironically I recently had a debate with a family member who works on a police procedural how ridiculous it was that TV shows shy away from revealing certain criminal techniques for fear that doing so was proliferate the use of such techniques, and make criminals more difficult to catch. My stance then was, “all of this information is available online, why does it matter if the TV show broadcasts it”. However, in this smartphone stalking example I find myself on the other side of the argument.

One reason I think this story is so harmful and problematic is it’s lack of balance between detailing the ways someone can spy on a smartphone, and the ways someone can protect themselves from being spied on. While detailing spyware installation procedures and calling products by their brand names over eleven times, the story mentions only once, in passing, The National Network to End Domestic. The reporter even fails to note that NNEDV has easily accessible online resources to help victims manage their digital privacy. The only remedy the story alludes to is to “shut off GPS and Wi-Fi, and stay away from Facebook”, which are certainly not successful techniques to evade the spyware the rest of the story talks about. Tools like malware scans, factory resets, security settings, and other preventive measures were never mentioned once.

I guess I just wish the story had highlighted resources for women to educate and protect themselves, rather than detailing to stalkers how to do their stalking.

Notes

Two statistics from the story that really jumped out at me…

  • 85% of the shelters say they’re working directly with victims whose abusers tracked them using GPS.
  • 75% say they’re working with victims whose abusers eavesdropped on their conversation remotely — using hidden mobile apps.

Here are Technology Safety Tips from The National Network to End Domestic Violence

Here is audio of the original broadcast in case NPR ever takes it down