Mobile Spyware Use In Domestic Violence Ramps Up

from the following-the-nsa's-example dept

We recently wrote about the emergence of NSA-like spying platforms for mobile devices. Ostensibly designed and marketed for worried mothers and/or employers to monitor their children and/or employees, reports instead indicate a more nefarious use employed by jealous men and women looking to spy on their would-be significant others. In other words, technology somewhat similar to what the NSA employs generally is being used quite specifically by the unhinged, who appear to have taken our spy agencies’ example to heart.

If some recent reports are to be believed, most of us have probably underestimated the problem instead of blowing it out of proportion.

MobiStealth, the product that received such rave reviews online, was used by convicted murderer Simon Gittany to read his girlfriend Lisa Harnum’s text messages, one of several forms of control and surveillance he subjected her to. The product’s website encourages potential buyers to ”get the answers you deserve”. When Gittany learned of Ms Harnum’s plan to escape the abusive relationship in July 2011, he threw her off the balcony of their 15th-floor Sydney apartment.

Down Under, at least, it would appear this wasn’t an isolated incident.

In a Victorian study last year, 97 per cent of domestic violence workers reported that perpetrators were using mobile technologies to monitor and harass women in domestic situations. Two-thirds of the 46 victims interviewed said they were made to feel like they were being watched or tracked, yet less than half told somebody about it.

While that first number is certainly shocking, I’m actually far more intrigued by the second set of statistics. Less than half of domestic violence victims who felt like they were being tracked on their mobile devices didn’t say anything to anyone? This reeks of resignation when what might be needed most is a good dose of recalcitrance. While it may be difficult to directly point the blame for these domestic violence perps at intrusively spying government agencies, I wonder if the same could be said for the victims’ reluctance to do anything about being spied on. If we have to accept a world in which our own governments, or foreign governments, are going to spy on us, perhaps it makes us less likely to push back against spying that is of a domestic nature?

I’m not sure, but the way this technology is progressing and the price at which it is offered likely means that stories for this kind of thing are in their infancy stages.

Mobile phone spyware costs as little as $6 a month and needs to be installed physically on a phone once for it to operate without the owner’s knowledge. Shane Johnson, a spokesman for Sydney company Spousebusters, said it sold ”hundreds” of GPS trackers, hidden cameras, listening bugs and spyware programs a year. The company asks no questions of purchasers and takes no responsibility for people using legal products to commit illegal acts.

And the perps can claim all along they’re only following the NSA’s example? Oh, this should work out well…

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Comments on “Mobile Spyware Use In Domestic Violence Ramps Up”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Nowadays there’s no excuse to be oblivious to technology and security specially if you are less than 40. It’s a matter of self-protection. Suppose the Sydney girl had her phone fully locked (and it’s not that hard to do it even with no rooting). Sure the guy could reset the phone and install anyway but it could at least raise suspicion that something is wrong.

There’s an issue though. If they guy gives her a brand new phone with the spyware pre-installed then it could be a problem. Maybe there’s a business opportunity here? Ie: a service that scans your phone for stuff that shouldn’t be there.

Anonymous Howard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As I see, the real issue is not spyware being accessible to domestic audience.

The real problem is the mess what smartphones call “security”. My wife got a smartphone, and honestly, I couldn’t tell what programs are running (actually, instead of a short list of “maybe”-s), with what rights, which program has access to certain features of the phone, incoming and outgoing traffic etc etc.

You have less then little control over what you allow your phone and apps to do. Smart devices need decent process explorer like tools, firewall, antivirus and management tools, like any decent operating system.

This is the main reason I’ll never buy a smartphone.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Correct. Smartphones are insecure BY DESIGN.

The same thing, by the way, is true of the sophisticated computer systems being hastily and foolishly installed in cars — see, for example, Nitesh Dhanjani: Cursory Evaluation of the Tesla Model S: We Can’t Protect Our Cars Like We Protect Our Workstations. Stalkers, pedophiles, rapists, abusers, etc., are going to take advantage of those as well (and probably are already). (Still worse, many of those automotive systems are accessible by smartphone.)

I think a fair case can be made that smartphone vendors and automobile makers are both being extremely irresponsible, unprofessional and negligent with the security of their customers by deliberately putting products on the market that were designed to be insecure. But it will probably take a few horrible tragedies (or more than a few) to put this on the public’s radar. And then of course there will be Congressional hearings with weepy, lying executives (e.g., GM this week) and the usual flurry of press releases using the usual phrase (“…nobody could have foreseen…”) and then there will be endless litigation and in the end, those responsible will walk away unscathed from the trail of victims.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Totally agreed. But while there’s little control and these issues you can increase your security by practicing healthy and secure habits on your phone. Take for an example the wide permissions Android apps ask before being installed. I won’t install an app before making sure of its origins if they ask for too much and broad permissions. Most people will.

I’m guessing Google will shift towards allowing users to deny some permissions. It’s a question of basic security, both online and offline.

TC Byrd says:

The nature of abuse

“This reeks of resignation when what might be needed most is a good dose of recalcitrance.”
I appreciate what you are trying to say about spying on significant others using tech means in this article, but I’m afraid you have demonstrated a striking and fundamental misunderstanding of domestic abuse. Whether or not the government is spying on us has absolutely zero to do with why an abused person might not fight back about this sort of thing in their homes. That “resignation” is coming from an entirely different place for the abused person–a place of systematic dehumanization and terrorization from the ABUSER.
Spying by our governments has not softened up victims of domestic abuse to being spied on by their abusers and to suggest that is why victims aren’t more “recalcitrant” to being spied on is sort of laughable, frankly.

Ole Juul (profile) says:

Re: The nature of abuse

You make a good point about misunderstanding domestic abuse. I also think that it is a mistake to minimize the immediacy of the issues in one’s home environment.

That said, when you used the words “a place of systematic dehumanization and terrorization from the ABUSER.” I wonder if there is not some value in looking at the Government spying in that way too. Yes, there is not the urgency of a home situation, but are people not being dehumanized en-mass by the current situation? Life in North America was certainly so different 50 years ago as to be almost unrecognizable now. The psychological environment of today’s society is certainly not healthy, being full of paranoia, nervous reaction, and yes, complacency. The NSA situation is only part of what is happening. In fact it is really just a symptom, as is domestic spying. People are afraid, but they don’t say so directly.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: The nature of abuse

Damn straight, Ole Juul. The paranoia/nervous reaction seems to come about when people refuse to think the issues through without running them through a political or social filter first. I’ve seen people self-censor to avoid political “contamination” by reading through a post I wrote on a social media platform. He actually said something along those lines.

That’s the world we live in. Was he afraid of not being virulently right-wing any more or of what might happen if he changed his attitude and became willing to compromise his “ideological purity?”

Damn, he was afraid of something.

Anonymous Coward says:

Recalcitrance was not the word you were looking for

“Two-thirds of the 46 victims interviewed said they were made to feel like they were being watched or tracked, yet less than half told somebody about it.”

This is not actually surprising statistically and has nothing whatsoever to do with the current state of government surveillance.
It is unfortunately still the first step of most (if not all) abusers to isolate their victims from any type of support network.

Your reaction to this statistic: “This reeks of resignation when what might be needed most is a good dose of recalcitrance.” reeks of misinformation/insensibility towards the problems of domestic abuse and the situation that the victims of such abuse find themselves into.

It could use a re-write.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“Less than half of domestic violence victims who felt like they were being tracked on their mobile devices didn’t say anything to anyone?”

In a society that supports the premise that ‘she was asking for it’, this isn’t that shocking.
Women often don’t make a fuss when they have a heart attack, not wanting to ‘bother’ anyone.
Do you think they want to face a group of men who are supposed to serve and protect, given the standard horror stories that clutter the media about the treatment many of them seem to get?
We’ve seen rape victims threatened with prosecution (in fact IIRC there was a recent case where they were forcing a victim to testify or face huge jail time and more horrors).
We’ve heard the stories of women who recant allegations against their abusers, because the system that promises to protect them often fails to do so. A TRO sounds good, but a piece of paper won’t keep you from being shot, stabbed, beaten, or many other horrible things.
Many victims think they can walk the tightrope of keeping the abuser of on an even keel easier than reporting and getting help.

Funny how many PDs can afford tanks, but can’t manage to protect people in these types of situations.

People have always spied, the tech is just newer, better, faster now. As a society we haven’t adapted to these things. We like to pretend these things don’t happen, it was just an outlier, it isn’t THAT common, and anything else we can delude ourselves with to pretend it isn’t a real problem. We are really good at ignoring things that haven’t happened to us directly.

The problem isn’t the tech, the problem is our response to victims. We need to believe them, not belittle them. We need to provide the tools to police to find these pieces of tech, and the legal system needs to consider that someone willing to go to these lengths is actually a threat that a court order isn’t going to stop. Punishment might deter some from pursuing this type of evil, but the system needs to deal with those who will go forward anyways.

But society wants to focus on the ‘good’ they think these things can do and ignore the all to real ‘bad’ it allows. Just ask DiFi how much her ass chapped after telling us being spied on was a-okay, and she figured out they spied on her too.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The problem is when they don’t make the bad a crime until well after it is happening.

I don’t think we can ignore things moving forward but we can’t turn a blind eye to how it might be used for bad, otherwise we end up with things like the surveillance state the US has turned into. The people who are supposed to provide checks and balances turned a blind eye and accepted everything would just be peachy.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re:

Great post, TAC.

It’s hard to think straight when you’re in an extreme situation and compassion is sadly lacking in the treatment of abuse victims. Therefore when they appear to be acting in a counter-intuitive way, it’s because they’re responding to the only options they believe are available to them. In many cases, it means going back to the one they reported for beating them (it happens to men, too). That may be interpreted as a false accusation, but where do you go when you’ve got no money, nowhere to stay, and the abuser finds you wherever you run to?

Anonymous Coward says:

My first gut reaction to this article is that Timothy has no idea of what abuse is about nor what it does to the abused. I would heartedly suggest you go spend some years working with the abused and helping them get back on their feet to really understand the problem before making your “intuitions” public.

Understand their pain, their fear, how their lives have been controlled and how long it takes them to recover when they are finally freed – it’ll probably break your your heart.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Abuse always lies with the abuser and some issues in their past. Technology is agnostic. However, the technology is part of the abuse, as in the case of cyber-bullying and phone-stalking.

Has Tim misunderstood this? Probably. But I also think that, with some enlightenment (see also, the conceivable Black Bug Room of X-men fame) Timothy can change.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You’re correct that I’ve never been afforded the experience of this kind of abuse and if I came off as insensitive, that certainly wasn’t my intent. I’m also well aware of the potential for a Stockholm Syndrome like reaction, but I don’t believe any of my former Psych profs would suggest that it occurs at the levels described by these statistics.

I don’t think suggesting that conditioning in the form of acceptance of surveillance will breed victims more willing to be spied upon is controversial and I’m a bit surprised you chose to jump down my throat about it….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Your characterisation is lacking because you have no experience/knowledge with dealing with those who have been abused and then dealing with the consequences of getting them back on their feet.

Deal with them and the consequences and you will gain a different perspective (I would hope).

Sometimes experience (or at least dealing with those who have the experience) is the only real way to get insight into some areas of life.

Finally, your logical fallacy is showing through with your strawman of actually having had to experience abuse. My comments have been about dealing with those who are or have been abused.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It’s not Stockholm Syndrome even that people are talking about. It’s straight up terror. They are terrified to say anything because they are sure the abuser will find out and then they will get punished. They feel they have no way out, and may even feel they are so horrible in themselves they don’t even deserve an out. If they feel they have no where to turn, they’re not going to say anything to anyone, because they know the pain that will happen if they do.

Anonymous Coward says:

great comments

Most of the comments are spot-on.

Understanding the power-and-control dynamic in abusive relationships is critical to any conversation about the use of technology in the context of IPV; victim-blaming is counterproductive (and depressingly common).

It’s not as easy as some may think to avoid this type of abuse. Here’s a surprising stat about adolescents:

“one in six teens have been in a relationship where their partner has bought a cell phone or minutes for them.”

So, mom & dad have Junior’s phone locked down & free of malware but he’s secretly using the phone his girlfriend gave him so that they can chat in the middle of the night. Absent the knowledge that ‘secret’ phones are not uncommon, mom & dad mistakenly believe Junior is safe from mobile spyware and the like.

Here’s an article I wrote in law school about the use of technology in teen dating violence. Although the focus is on teens many of the aspects apply to adults as well (not to mention that parents really need to know some of this).

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

A problem with abuse

This is a problem with abusive relationships, which is also called co-dependence. The victim of the abuse may feel that they are abused and trapped, but they often decline to resist. Even if separated from the abuser, they may return; such as, for example, bailing the abuser out of jail.

In actuality, this is a further manifestation of control by the abuser, who works to make the abused feel they have no options: “Who else would love you?” “How would you live?” “What would you do for money?” “If you leave, I’ll kill (you/the kids).”

This can be done more subtly than the above and, when an abused feels they have no other option, they are inclined to return to–to accept–the deficiencies of the relationship.

It is one of the biggest problems in trying to reduce abuse.

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