Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims : All Tech Considered Cyberstalking has transformed domestic abuse in the U.S. Tracking tools called spyware make it cheap and easy for someone to monitor a partner secretly, 24 hours a day.
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Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims

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Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims

Smartphones Are Used To Stalk, Control Domestic Abuse Victims

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now for All Tech Considered. In this week's tech segment, a report on domestic violence in the mobile age. We're going to hear how stalkers are using people's own mobile phones against them. This is a different twist on privacy issues we've covered before. We've reported a lot on big-brother concerns - data tracking by the government and corporate giants like Google.

This is more intimate - husbands and wives, lovers and exes who secretly watch their partners. They are cyberstalking using digital tools known as spyware. They're a lot cheaper than hiring a private detective. NPR's Aarti Shahani started looking into how these tools are used. She found that cyberstalking is now a standard part of domestic abuse in the United States.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Before we get into how spyware works, I want to bring you into a place that's been transformed by it.

ROSA NAVARRO: It is important to let you know it is a confidential location. You're not to reveal the address to the shelter to anyone.

SHAHANI: We're in a domestic violence shelter - a safe house for mostly women and children. It's run by a group called Next Door, and it's somewhere in the heart of Silicon Valley. I can't tell you exactly where because its location is a secret by law. I had to sign an agreement to be let in.

While the kids are playing with dominoes in the living room, counselor Rosa Navarro takes the newest arrival, a woman who has a little boy, into a quiet office for intake.

NAVARRO: I do have to tell you that no cell phones nowadays have a tracking system. If your abuser were to...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I have everything off on mine. My GPS is off and my Wi-Fi, too. Everything is off.

NAVARRO: OK. And how about e-mail? E-mailing - maybe Facebook.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't have Facebook.

NAVARRO: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just do texting.

NAVARRO: Perfect.

SHAHANI: Navarro says most of the people who come here don't already know they're oozing data from their phones, their tablets, their social media accounts - data that an abuser can access pretty easily. I was surprised the woman was so cautious, so I asked her.

I'm just curious why you knew to shut off all the things on your phone - the Wi-Fi, the GPS.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I know because a lot of my family works for the sheriff's department.

SHAHANI: Smartphones and GPS have transformed domestic violence shelters across the U.S. NPR surveyed more than 70 shelters and not just in big coastal cities like New York and San Francisco, but in smaller towns in the Midwest and the South.

And we ended up finding a trend - 85% of the shelters we surveyed say they're working directly with victims whose abuser tracked them using GPS - 75% say they're working with victims whose abusers eavesdropped on their conversations remotely using hidden mobile ads. And nearly half the shelters we surveyed have a policy against using Facebook on premises because they're concerned a stalker can pinpoint location.

CINDY SOUTHWORTH: The strategy of offenders is to have complete and utter domination and control of their victims.

SHAHANI: Cindy Southworth is an advocate with the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

SOUTHWORTH: And so it's not enough that they just monitor the victim. They will then taunt them or challenge them and say, why were you telling your therapist this, or why were you telling your sister that, or why did you go to the mall today when I told you you couldn't leave the house?

SHAHANI: We'll explain how stalkers do this in a moment. First, I wanted to point out how Southworth talks about surveillance. She doesn't use the word privacy, as is the post-NSA norm. For her it's about power. Surveillance has long been part of domestic violence. Back in the day, abusive partners would have you followed around or wouldn't let you leave the house. Now from work or from the bar, they can just watch you on their laptop.

SOUTHWORTH: What we're seeing is that technology is now the new tool to perpetuate that surveillance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hello and welcome to MSpy, the top cell phone tracking software.

SHAHANI: MSpy is spyware - software you can use to track someone else by turning their smartphone or tablet or computer into a spy.

BRIAN HILL: So for one month it would be 70 bucks - up to 12 months, and that's the $200 price.

SHAHANI: That's cheap

HILL: Very cheap, considering what it can do.

SHAHANI: I'm getting a crash course from Brian Hill. He's a detective at the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, Minnesota. And he's giving me a two-hour lesson.

MSpy is easy to install. The stalker just needs a few minutes alone with the smartphone of the person being stalked. That's easy enough. Say, when they're in the shower.

HILL: Hey honey, I need to use your phone.

SHAHANI: Tell me the passcode.

Then, Hill shows me on this smartphone that he's hacked.

HILL: It tells you to go to the settings, go to security and the screenlock, and then it tells you to check the box for unknown sources.

SHAHANI: MSpy 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. It'll just hang out in a hidden folder with a nondescript name.

HILL: Android.sys - which, for someone looking at it - OK, it's running an Android system.

SHAHANI: Now the stalker can monitor the person being stalked from the website of the spyware company. Detective Hill goes to his laptop and logs into his MSpy account. There's a really nice dashboard to organize all of the information you're grabbing, and it's a lot of information, like...

HILL: Contacts, call logs, text messages, call recordings...

SHAHANI: That's full recordings of entire conversations.

HILL: ...Photos, video files...

SHAHANI: There's also a log of every website visited by the person being stalked and a keylogger function to record everything the victim types into their smartphone.

HILL: So when you type in the website, it'll record www.wellsfargo.com.

SHAHANI: And once you're there, what's the next thing you're going to type?

HILL: It's going to be your username and password.

SHAHANI: Now the stalker can get into the victim's bank account. And say the victim starts a new relationship. It's going great until suddenly the new person stops calling. Maybe he lost interest, or maybe the stalker blocked him.

HILL: You figured out who the new boyfriend is or the new girlfriend - whatever it is. You could type in their phone number, and then it'll restrict that call from ever coming into the phone. It won't allow it.

SHAHANI: MSpy also does location tracking. It has a map, kind of like Apple's Find My iPhone, that shows where the victim's smartphone is right now at 1:37 p.m. and the exact route it took to get from point A to point B.

And MSpy has one more powerful feature - the eavesdropping function. When a person being stalked gets an incoming call, that very second, the speakerphone gets activated and starts recording. Hill is playing back a recording from yesterday. He'd called the hacked smartphone to demonstrate.

HILL: And it's ringing and vibrating, and that's what you can hear. If I would've actually answered the phone, you then would hear the conversation.

SHAHANI: But the stalker can listen in even if the victim doesn't answer the phone and even if the ringer is on silent. The speakerphone picks up whatever conversation is in the room. Say the victim is talking with her sister or her counselor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's danger on the Internet.

SHAHANI: Ads for spyware companies are all over the Internet, and obviously they don't market their apps as tools for obsessed lovers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can track your child via GPS and monitor texts for abuse, including sexting and bullying.

SHAHANI: In online videos like this one, they market spyware as a safety product. It's a way to watch your employees or your kids with their full knowledge to make sure no one's out of line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Phone Sheriff servers store all data, ensuring parents always have information that can't be deleted.

SHAHANI: NPR called and e-mailed MSpy, which is based in London according to its website, Phone Sheriff in Florida, Mobistealth in Massachusetts, StealthGenie, which didn't list a location. We wanted to know, how many subscribers do you have? Have you ever reported a user to law enforcement for suspicious activity? What steps are you taking to prevent abuse?

MSpy responded that every customer signs an agreement acknowledging it's illegal to secretly spy on someone, and the company is not liable. None of the others responded to NPR's inquiries.

The advocate against domestic violence, Cindy Southworth, says a lot of victims don't realize that it's so easy to be tracked in so many ways. People just think they're going crazy. Southworth says they're not.

SOUTHWORTH: What I frequently tell victims is if you suspect that your ex knows too much, it's entirely possible any or all of your devices have been compromised.

SHAHANI: She says trust your instincts. Trust your gut. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

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