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Should Abuse Survivors Disappear From The Internet?

For more than two decades, Lorraine * has known that her ex-boyfriend is watching her. She cut contact with him 20 years ago, but in intimidating Facebook posts and emails, he makes sure she knows he always keeps an eye out, from the birth of his children to his birthday. most recent marriage. After years of abuse that resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and intense nightmares, the notes are creepy and make her uncomfortable putting personal information in an online space where he could see it.

“It affected my relationship with my friends,” says Lorraine. “It affected my relationship with my partner. It affected my ability to feel safe.

The advice many survivors like Lorraine receive when seeking help is to put their online lives behind them and remove themselves from the Internet altogether. There are many tutorials on how to remove your online presence. Given how often abusers use digital channels to harass their targets, stepping aside may seem like the obvious choice. But interpersonal violence thrives on the alienation of its victims, and some sort of online presence can be a crucial lifeline for people trying to escape their abusers and rebuild a new life.

Tony Hunt, director of development for Operation Safe Escape, a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence escape their abusers, says removing themselves from the internet might be exactly what the stalker wants. “It’s about control, they want to isolate you because it gives them absolute control over everything you do,” Hunt explained. “It’s easy to think you have to go, but you don’t need to. “

This is an urgent issue for thousands of people struggling with domestic violence. One in four women and one in nine men will experience severe physical violence between intimate partners at some point in their lives, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. One in seven women and one in 18 men have been harassed by an intimate partner in their lifetime, so much so that they were very afraid or believed that they or a loved one would be injured or killed . A 2015 survey of college students found that nearly 75 percent of them had experienced some form of technology-assisted intimate partner victimization in the past year.

For Lorraine, removing herself from the Internet didn’t seem like a solution. “It was like I was taking away my online freedom because of someone else’s abuse,” she said. “My husband and I have worked in various countries, so social media is great for staying in touch with people we rarely see. We wouldn’t want to lose that ability.

Julia * ‘s ex-partner watched her even when they were together and continued to do so after their breakup, making online spaces particularly dangerous. But instead of retreating, the threat made her learn more about internet security and pay more attention to how and where she logged on. For her, establishing secure communications with people she trusted was particularly essential.

“An abusive relationship is already devastating, and the shrinking afterwards adds to the devastation,” Julia said. “We can develop intentional limits on the Internet, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It was better for me to know more about internet safety, privacy and the different tools that stalkers can use than to retreat, as this knowledge allowed me to have a more realistic idea of ​​what is. possible.

Some survivors are also concerned that the complete disappearance could make matters worse, according to Professor TK Logan of the University of Kentucky, who studies cyberstalking. “Victims said he was threatening me and doing all this through social media, so I quit social media,” she explained. “And now all the Survivor can think of is, ‘Oh, my God, what is he doing? “Is he just going to show up physically?”

Hunt defines the security measures survivors should use as a new kind of lifestyle where survivors are intentional about their online presence, rather than an act of disappearance. “The priority is to make sure that no one is advertising their personal life,” he said. “Because [the abuser] will have something that will give them access to the kids or their location or diet throughout the day. Once you set those boundaries and start living your life again, you’ll be glad you did.

Although Operation Safe Escape trains survivors on more general security protocols rather than focusing solely on online security, Hunt says technology-facilitated abuse often occurs. Part of the organization’s job, in partnership with the Coalition Against Stalkerware, is to identify developers who claim their software is for law enforcement, but are in fact selling their products to individuals seeking to coerce and control their victims.

“What happens is you have boyfriends who will pay contractors to install a keylogger on their girlfriend’s computer, and all of a sudden a whole new world opens up,” Hunt said. “If the abuser has the right tools and has physical access to the device, in 30 to 60 seconds he can do a lot of things.”

Regarding these next-level security threats which include hacking and surveillance, Hunt recommends that survivors contact Operation Safe Escape directly so that they can be guided on the options they have to leave safely and regain their position. life and autonomy. “We’re very selective about who we work with and how much information we release,” Hunt said. “Once that information is available, guess who is trying to use it against the survivors?” Logan also recommends setting up multi-factor authentication and directs survivors to the Harassment and Harassment Risk Profile and Assessment Tool (SHARP).

The most reliable way to detect stalkerware on an Android device is to run an antivirus application and perform a scan. For iOS users, Apple provides a step-by-step guide to detecting invasive apps. The Coalition Against Stalkerware also recommends that potential victims keep a journal of what they are going through, to help spot trends and show the history of what happened if they choose to enlist the help of law enforcement agencies. order or charity helping survivors.

But even given the threat of malware, the most effective protections still rely on a strong support network, which is much easier to build when you’re online. “The goal is to put up as many barriers, to make it as difficult as possible for the stalker,” says Logan, “and the other step is to get support. “

* Some names have been changed to protect sources that have been the target of abuse.


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