As digital tools that gather cellphone data for tracking children, friends or lost phones have multiplied in recent years, so have the options for people who abuse the technology to track others without consent.
“If you tell the wrong person your husband knows your every move, and he knows what you’ve said in your bedroom, you can start to look crazy,” she said. “It’s so much easier to believe someone’s crazy than believe all these things are happening.”
Digital monitoring of a spouse or partner can constitute illegal stalking, wiretapping or hacking. But laws and law enforcement have struggled to keep up with technological changes, even though stalking is a top warning sign for attempted homicide in domestic violence cases.
“We misunderstand and minimize this abuse,” said Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “People think that if there’s not an immediate physical proximity to the victim, there might not be as much danger.”
Statistics on electronic stalking are hard to find because victims may not know they are being watched, or they may not report it. Even if they believe they are being tracked, hidden software can make confirmation difficult.
But data breaches at two surveillance companies last year — revealing accounts of more than 100,000 users, according to the technology site Motherboard — gave some sense of the scale. The tracking app company mSpy told The New York Times that it sold subscriptions to more than 27,000 users in the United States in the first quarter of this year.
According to data published last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 percent of women and 11 percent of men in the United States at some point endure stalking or sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner that has significant effects. While comprehensive numbers aren't available on domestic abuse cases involving digital stalking in the United States, a small survey published in Australia in 2016 found that 17 percent of victims were tracked via GPS, including through such apps.
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See also, Karen Levy, assistant professor at Cornell University, Nicola Dell, assistant professor at Cornell Tech, Damon McCoy, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at New York University and Thomas Ristenpart, associate professor at Cornell Tech. Their paper “The Spyware Used in Intimate Partner Violence” — with additional co-authors Rahul Chatterjee, Periwinkle Doerfler, Hadas Orgad, Sam Havron, and Jackeline Palmer — was a contribution to the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy.