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Should abuse survivors have to disappear from the internet?

Some survivors are challenging the conventional wisdom about how to stay safe online

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Illustration by Ori Toor

For more than two decades, Lorraine* has known her ex-boyfriend is watching her. She cut contact with him 20 years ago, but in Facebook posts and intimidating emails, he makes sure she knows he’s still keeping tabs, from the birth of her children to her most recent wedding anniversary. After years of abuse that resulted in a PTSD diagnosis and intense nightmares, the notes are chilling, and make her uncomfortable putting any personal information in an online space where he could see it.

“It’s affected my relationship with my friends,” Lorraine says. “It’s affected my relationship with my partner. It’s affected my ability to feel safe.”

The advice many survivors like Lorraine receive when they look for help is to leave their online life behind and delete themselves from the internet entirely. There are many tutorials on how to delete your online presence. Given how often abusers use digital channels to harass their targets, erasing yourself can seem like the obvious choice. But interpersonal abuse thrives on the alienation of its victims, and some kind of online presence can be a crucial lifeline for people trying to escape their abusers and rebuild a new life. 

Tony Hunt, chief development officer of Operation Safe Escape, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of domestic violence escape their abusers, says deleting yourself from the internet could be exactly what the stalker wants. “It’s about control, they want to isolate you because that gives them absolute control over everything you do,” Hunt explained. “It’s easy to think you need to disappear, but you don’t need to.”

It’s an urgent question for thousands of people quietly struggling with domestic violence. One in four women and one in nine men will experience severe intimate partner physical violence at some point in their lives, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. One in seven women and one in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime, to a point where they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed. A 2015 survey of college students found that nearly 75 percent had experienced some kind of tech-assisted intimate partner victimization in the past year.

For Lorraine, deleting herself from the internet didn’t feel like a solution. “It felt like I was removing my online liberty because of someone else’s abuse,” she said. “Both my husband and I have worked in various countries, so social media is brilliant for keeping in contact with people that we rarely see. We wouldn’t want to lose that ability.”

“It felt like I was removing my online liberty because of someone else’s abuse.”

Julia’s* ex-partner surveilled her even when they were together and continued to do so after they had broken up, which made online spaces particularly dangerous. But instead of retreating, the threat inspired her to learn more about internet security, and to be more careful with how and where she logged on. For her, establishing safe communications with trusted people was particularly essential.

“An abusive relationship is already devastating, and shrinking afterwards adds to the devastation,” Julia said. “We can develop intentional boundaries on the internet, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It was better for me to learn more about internet security, privacy, and different tools stalkers can use than retreating, because that knowledge empowered me to have a more realistic sense of what is possible.”

Some survivors also worry that disappearing entirely will escalate the situation, according to University of Kentucky professor TK Logan, who researches cyberstalking. “I’ve had victims say, he was threatening me and doing all this stuff through social media so I got off social media,” she explained. “And now all the survivor can think about is, ‘Oh, my God, what is he doing? Is he just going to show up physically?’”

“If the abuser has the right tools and he has physical access to the device, in 30 to 60 seconds there’s a lot he can do.”

Hunt frames the security measures survivors should employ as a new kind of lifestyle where survivors are intentional about their online presence, rather than a disappearing act. “The priority is making sure that nobody’s advertising everything about their personal lives,” he said. “Because [the abuser] will have something that will give them access to the kids or their location or their regimen throughout the day. Once you’ve established those boundaries and you start living your life again, you’ll be glad you did it.” 

Though Operation Safe Escape trains survivors on more general security protocols rather than only focusing on online security, Hunt says technology-facilitated abuse comes up often. Part of the organization’s job, in partnership with the Coalition Against Stalkerware, is to identify developers that claim their software is for law enforcement, but actually sell their products to individuals looking to coerce and control their victims.

“What happens is, you have boyfriends who will pay contractors to install a keylogger on their girlfriend’s computer, and all of a sudden, a whole new world opens up,” Hunt said. “If the abuser has the right tools and he has physical access to the device, in 30 to 60 seconds there’s a lot he can do.” 

With regard to these higher-level security threats that include hacking and surveillance, Hunt recommends survivors get directly in contact with Operation Safe Escape so they can be guided on what options they have to leave safely and regain their life and autonomy. “We are really selective about who we work with and how much information we put out there,” Hunt explained. “Once that information is out there, guess who tries to use it against survivors?” Logan also recommends setting up multiple-factor authentication, and directs survivors to the Stalking and Harassment Assessment & Risk Profile (SHARP) tool.

The most reliable way to detect stalkerware on an Android device is to run an antivirus app and do a scan. For iOS users, Apple provides a step-by-step guide for detecting invasive apps. The Coalition Against Stalkerware also recommends that potential victims keep a log of what they are experiencing, to help detect patterns and show the history of what has been happening if they choose to get help from law enforcement or a survivor assistance charity.

But even given the threat of malicious software, the most effective protections still rely on a strong support network, which is much easier to build when you’re connected. “The goal is to put up as many barriers, make it as difficult as possible for the stalker,” says Logan, “and then the other step is to get support.”

*Some names have been changed to protect sources who have been targeted by abuse.