With advances in technology, it’s becoming more and more possible for people to stalk and track the movements of partners or ex-partners. People can use this information in sinister ways such as:
- to show up at your location unexpectedly
- question you about the places you have been
- question you about who you have been with
- tell you they are watching you.
Known as cyberstalking, this has been made far easier through the widespread use of location services on our smart phones and the availability of spyware. One in six women experiencing online abuse, experiences tech abuse from a partner or ex-partner - equivalent to almost 2 million women in the UK (source: Refuge report: Unsocial spaces – a report on the online abuse of women).
Cyberstalking is on the increase. It causes serious alarm and distress and can lead to the fear of violence and indeed, unwanted physical contact can often follow. Even if abuse does not become physical, it may feel extremely threatening and oppressive because it’s online and therefore ever-present.
What is a digital break up?
It’s the process of breaking the digital links you have with your now ex-partner. This might include shared passwords or PINs or accounts to services such as Spotify or Netflix. It’s important to do this as part of the normal process of moving apart – you don’t want to be reminded of them when trying to login to watch some telly! More importantly, if you don’t make these breaks, you’re potentially leaving yourself open to an ex-partner using that digital access to spy on you, or intimidate you in other ways, should they so choose. This is rare but it’s important to know what to do if you’re worried it might happen to you.
Tips to protect yourself from cyberstalking
Here are some ideas for how you can secure your technology after your relationship ends, to protect yourself.
Turn off location services to improve security
Location services on our smart phones allow for our precise locations to be shared with others, for example via social media apps and ‘find my phone’ services. Sometimes you might not even realise it’s on and someone could potentially be using it to track your whereabouts. Review the location settings of every app on your phone – check for the location being unknowingly shared. You can turn off location services completely when you don’t need them. You can choose application settings that share location information only while using the app, or not at all, for example in apps like Uber or Strava which track your live location.
It's good to know that emergency services can still determine your location even if you have turned off location services in your settings.
Change your passwords and improve account security
New passwords should be set up for your various accounts, whether it be social media, your email or your bank. Passwords should be strong and unique to avoid an ex-partner being able to guess them. Using the same password for several accounts should also be avoided.
It’s also recommended to set up two-factor authentication on your accounts. This means that when logging into an account with a password, a code sent to your phone will also be needed to log in. This helps to ensure that only you have access to your accounts.
It’s also possible to check whether your password has been compromised in a data breach, which may mean your password can be found online by an ex-partner. This information can often be found in your phone’s security settings. If passwords have been compromised, obviously, change them as soon as possible.
Update cloud account settings to decouple from an ex-partner
Many couples or families share cloud accounts which link connected devices together and allow for information to be shared between them. For example, a family member may be able to see where your phone is if it’s lost, using ‘find my phone’ services. On the breakdown of a relationship, you may forget entirely that your devices are linked in this way and it may be that your ex-partner is able to track your movements without you being aware.
If you no longer wish to have your device connected to your ex-partner’s in this way, you can update your cloud settings. You can check which devices are linked to the cloud account and remove unwanted devices from the account. However, if this was a shared account, your ex-partner may also have access and be able to connect your devices again. It may therefore be necessary to create a new cloud account in your own name, to ensure that you are the only person with access to your cloud account and that your devices are the only devices linked to it.
If you own an iPhone, Apple have recently introduced a new feature in their iOS 16 update aimed at protecting victims of cyberstalking. Accessible through privacy and security settings, the new ‘safety check’ feature has two options: ‘manage sharing & access’ and ‘emergency reset’.
‘Manage sharing & access’ allows you to review what information you are automatically sharing with apps and other people, such as your location or photos. The ‘emergency reset’ option immediately resets and disables access for all apps and devices, except for your own device, decoupling other Apple devices connected to your iCloud account.
The feature also includes a ‘quick exit’ button in the top right corner designed to help a potential victim quickly exit the screen and hide the fact they have been reviewing their privacy settings. If the settings app is reopened by a potential abuser, then the app will start at the default settings page, covering the potential victim’s tracks.
This feature certainly improves the privacy of potential victims; however, it’s limited to Apple devices and to those Apple devices which have downloaded the new update. There’s no current equivalent for users of Android phones. Users of other phones should continue to review their security and sharing settings.
Changing device settings from the settings your ex-partner may have set up
Many partners buy smart phones for their partners or children and change the settings to enable them to track the device’s location. Their partners or children then go on to use the device, oblivious to the device’s settings. On the breakdown of a relationship these settings may still be in place and an ex-partner can track your device, or that of your children, without you being aware. You should therefore review your device’s settings to ensure that they are not sharing any information you do not want them to.
Be cautious of gifts made to children after the breakdown of the relationship, such as phones, iPods/iPads or other devices. The settings of these devices could be set up to share their location, allowing the ex-partner to stalk not only your children’s movements, but also yours indirectly.
Social media activity and stalking
Caution should also be taken when it comes to social media. Posts or photos uploaded by you, friends or family, can reveal your location to an ex-partner allowing them to track your movements.
Many social media accounts are open to the public and can be followed by ex-partners disguising themselves with fake names. Review your friends or followers lists and remove any accounts which you don’t recognise or are suspicious of. Alternatively, you can change your social media account’s privacy settings, so that only people you approve can view your account activity.
Tracking devices used by stalkers
Tracking devices, normally used to avoid losing items, have increasingly been used to track ex-partners and are a prime example of the threat of abuse that technology poses. Devices such as the Apple AirTag, which is about the size of a 10 pence piece and available to buy cheaply, will send precise location information to the user.
Apple have introduced features to their AirTags which aim to alert someone if they are unknowingly being tracked by an AirTag. For example, your iPhone may receive a notification to alert you to a nearby tracker. However, the features will not always bring this to your attention, for example, if you have an Android phone rather than an iPhone. This has led to widespread criticism of Apple and other companies for failing to introduce safeguarding measures for their tracking devices.
If you’re concerned that you might be being tracked, the first step to take is a search of the potential places where a tracker could be hidden. Common places include: inside bags, pockets, vehicles. However, as these are small devices, they can often be well hidden. There are apps available that can scan for nearby trackers and identify an unknown device nearby using Bluetooth; these are effective whether or not you have an iPhone.
Spyware - signs to look out for
Your digital activity can also be monitored through spyware. Software is available that would allow an ex-partner to read your texts, look at your photos and even access the camera of your smart phone. They may even be able to view you changing your password to prevent them accessing your accounts.
Signs to look out for if you’re concerned that this type of spyware may be being used on your phone include:
- your device running slower
- your battery draining faster than usual
- finding that apps or messages have been opened
- your phone lighting up or shutting down automatically.
There are steps to take to remove spyware from your device, including deleting any suspicious apps that you did not download or do not use. The most comprehensive way to remove any spyware would be to perform a factory reset of your device, which wipes all the saved information from it, returning it to its condition when first bought. This is of course a more inconvenient option as your saved photos and other useful information would also be wiped, however these can be saved to a different device. There are companies who can remove spyware from electronic devices, but that comes at a cost. You can consider simply buying a new device to alleviate the worry of cyberstalking.
You may even be concerned about covert recordings around the home. Again, there are companies available who can conduct a ‘sweep’ of your home. If spyware is found, there must be careful consideration of the action to take - as you may alert the perpetrator that you have discovered their actions, which in turn could trigger more extreme actions. If you are concerned about this type of stalking, please seek professional advice immediately, for example, from a solicitor or the police.
Is cyberstalking illegal?
Yes. It's a criminal offence. In the eyes of the law there is not a lot of difference between cyberstalking and harassment. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 specifically covers cyberstalking.
Online Safety Bill
A new Online Safety Bill is currently progressing through Parliament. However, it’s been widely acknowledged by organisations committed to tackling violence against women and girls, that the Bill in its current form, fails to address the online harm which particularly women and girls are threatened by. This includes cyberstalking perpetrated by abusive partners and ex-partners.
The Bill is considered to be a huge opportunity to protect victims and potential victims of cyberstalking; also to implement safeguards that make it more difficult for partners and ex-partners to use of technology to exert coercive control. Yet on current drafting, the Bill fails to address these issues explicitly.
Cyberstalking – how to get help
If you’re worried about cyberstalking – from an ex-partner or anybody, you should reach out for help at the earliest opportunity. A family solicitor can give you legal advice and support and point you in the direction of other support agencies. You can also call the police. Here are some suggestions for organisations that are there to help:
- National Stalking Helpline – part of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust
- Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service
- Protection Against Stalking
Chat to the Author, Harry Calder
Trainee Solicitor - Families and Divorce, Bishop's Stortford officeMeet Harry