Techie Turned Stalker

The e-mail’s subject line was “Interested in hiring you.” The sender, a woman, said she had seen me on a local Baltimore news show talking about revenge porn and she was “interested in talking to you about some work.” She gave an office phone number and her e-mail address was from a large local hospital system, so I thought it might be for some sort of speaking engagement.

It was anything but. When I contacted her, the woman told me her life had been turned upside down by her ex-boyfriend. He had hacked her phones, her voicemail, and her family’s computer, and he was blocking her out of her digital life. She was looking for someone to help her regain control.

To some, those claims might sound like paranoia. But there are thousands of incidents of this type of abusive use of technology annually, perpetrated by (mostly male) spouses or partners. The most public forms of tech-centered abuse, especially revenge porn, are getting attention from legislators across the US right now. But these incidents are not entirely new. For more than a decade, domestic violence and “intimate partner” stalking and harassment have relied heavily on technology.

The most recent comprehensive study on stalking and domestic violence, conducted by the Department of Justice in 2006, found that more than 887,000 people were aware that they were victims of cyber stalking or electronic monitoring in that year alone. And that was a year before the iPhone was released, and well before the smartphone boom really began.

Ads for software packages marketed specifically for stalking a partner

The woman who contacted me claimed her ex-boyfriend had put tracking software on her BlackBerry smartphone. When she found the suspicious files on the phone, she had tried to delete them—but they reappeared. Then she was locked out of the phone entirely, and her voicemail password was changed. When she switched to a backup phone—a flip phone belonging to her father—she soon found the voicemail password for that number had been changed as well. And when she had a technician check a family computer, it was found to have remote access software and a key logger installed on it.

The alleged stalker was described to me as a 59-year old man with an IT background. The woman said she had met him when they were both in college and had been re-introduced to him recently by his relatives. She told me that now, she was afraid to even bring another computer for her daughter into her home, because she feared her ex would somehow be able to hack into it.

I told her to contact her cellular carrier and law enforcement. Then I reached out to Verizon to see if they would share any more information about how prevalent cases like these are.

A Verizon spokesperson wouldn’t comment, but instead directed me to contact Cindy Southworth, Vice President of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). Southworth spends much of her time crossing the country to provide law enforcement training on the use of technology in stalking and domestic violence cases.

“The crimes and the behaviors aren’t new,” Southworth told me when I reached her between transcontinental flights. “What’s new is the tools. If phones weren’t important to people, then they wouldn’t be such a target. We hear tons of stories about phone and computer misuse.”

Some of those stories were detailed by Southworth and other researchers in a 2007 paper documenting the use of technology in violence and stalking of “intimate partners.” One 2003 case was the earliest documented use of GPS tracking by a stalker—a Wisconsin man who knew his ex-girlfriend’s every move because of a GPS device he planted in her car.

The most comprehensive study, unfortunately, predates the iPhone. That 2006 Department of Justice survey, first published in 2009, found that of the estimated 3.4 million victims of stalking that year, most were being surveilled or harassed by their stalker in multiple ways.

Read more at Ars Technica 

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