This video looks at what spyware is, how it gets used by abusive partners and ex-partners, and what a woman can do if she suspects spyware is being used.
If you are concerned about your safety because of abuse, please view this video from a device the abusive person cannot access, such one available at a public library or a women’s organization. If there may be immediate danger, please contact the police.
How does he know where I am? This video looks at what spyware is and how it gets used by abusive partners and ex-partners.
Do you wonder how your partner or ex-partner knows where you are or what you’ve been talking about? Has he unexpectedly shown up where you are? Does he know about events at work or things you’ve discussed in private with someone else? Does he call you repeatedly when you’re in meetings? Is it a coincidence? Did you tell him but forget telling him?
If this sounds familiar, the person may be getting information about you through a device that you use frequently, such as your phone, your laptop, desktop computer or tablet, or through your children’s devices. Or he may be monitoring you through a small mechanism he has hidden in your purse, home or car, or your children’s possessions. What you’re dealing with is technology abuse.’
Technology abuse is when one person uses digital technology to get and/or maintain power and control over another person. This behaviour is also called cyberstalking, or online abuse, or electronic abuse.
There are different ways technology is used by abusive people. A common way is frequent abusive texts and phone calls. This presentation from Luke’s Place looks at technology that is used to monitor people.
Luke’s Place provides family law information and support to women leaving abusive relationships. We’re located in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. You can find us online at LukesPlace.ca.
This presentation has been supported with a grant from the Canadian Women’s Foundation and its partners.
At Luke’s Place, we know and respect that men can be victims of abuse at the hands of partners who are women, that abuse happens in same-sex relationships as well as heterosexual ones and that folks who identify as trans or non-binary face abuse in their intimate relationships too.
However, all of this abuse is rooted in a power structure based on misogyny and traditional male power. People identifying as women are subjected to the most serious forms of controlling and physical violence.
Because of this, we use gendered nouns and pronouns when we talk about violence in relationships.
- There are many ways an abusive person might use technology to “keep an eye” on his partner or former partner.
- There are common smartphone apps and features, like “Find my phone” and “Location Services”. These apps were designed to make technology more convenient but they are also used by abusive people to spy on their partners or ex-partners.
- GPS, in cars or on phones, is another technology used by abusers. GPS was designed to help people get around but abusive people monitor this location information to track where the person is – in the car or with their phone.
- An abusive person might look at his partner’s contacts and texts on her phone if she hasn’t used a PIN to lock the device.
- If he has access to her device he might look at what she does on the internet through her browser — Chrome or Firefox or Safari — if she hasn’t cleared this history from the browser.
- The abusive person may be able to log into the woman’s email and other accounts if her passwords are easy for him to guess or if she’s saved them into her browser.
- He might use home security cameras to monitor her comings and goings and visitors to the home when he’s not there.
These forms of technology were not designed for a person to spy on his partner, but they are often used by abusive people for just that.
To learn how to manage these forms of monitoring, visit our website, Family Court and Beyond.ca, and go to the Web and Phone Safety section.
However, some technology is specifically designed for secretive monitoring. It’s called “spyware” or “stalkerware” or “spouseware”, although it sometimes marketed as technology for parents to monitor their children or for employers to monitor staff.
Spyware is almost always illegal when a person uses it to secretly monitor a partner or former partner.
There are two kinds of spyware
Some spyware takes the form of small mechanisms that can be hidden in purses, toys, cars, the home or the workplace. These mechanisms can include a camera or “webcam” and/or a listening device, as well as technology that allows the information the mechanism picks up to be relayed to the abusive person from a distance, or “remotely”. The mechanisms may also include other features, such as GPS.
Spyware can also come in the form of software, or apps, that can very quickly be installed into smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers. These apps are designed to be difficult to detect.
Spyware apps are often inexpensive, easy to purchase, and don’t require technical skills to install. Usually the abuser needs to have access to the target person’s device in order to install the spyware, but sometimes this can be done remotely, such as through an email attachment that automatically installs the app when the attachment is opened.
Spyware apps on phones will monitor text, email, call history, contacts, web browsing, photos and the location of the phone. Some apps can tap into a device’s microphone and camera, and record what’s going on around it. Some can listen in on calls and messaging apps, like Skype. Some spyware can turn on devices that are turned off.
Spyware installed on computers, laptops and some tablets will monitor everything typed into the device; this is referred to as “keystroke logging” or “keystroke tracking”.
All the information a spyware device or app captures is transmitted to the abusive person’s device. The abuser can watch what is recorded as it happens.
If, for example, a woman is in a private meeting and her hacked phone is on the table during the meeting, the spyware app in the phone can transmit the sounds from the room and the images its camera can capture to the abusive person’s device. The spyware app will also provide the abusive person with the phone’s location by accessing the phone’s GPS.
Here’s another example of how a spyware app can work: A woman is planning to leave her abusive partner. He suspects this and has installed a spyware app on her smartphone and on her work laptop, which she brings home occasionally. Thinking it’s a safe device, she uses the laptop to look online for legal information about arrangements for children after separation. She uses the laptop to document evidence of his abuse and other information that she prepares for her lawyer. She also emails her lawyer’s office and her support worker at the local shelter from the laptop. Through the spyware, the abusive partner can see what the woman is planning.
Of course, this kind of monitoring will greatly impact a woman.
When she is unaware it is occurring, the abusive person might convince her that she told him where she was going, what she discussed with her friend, or what happened at work. That will confuse her, and will cause her to doubt herself, and in time she may trust the abusive person more than she trusts herself. This confusion may also raise doubts in her support people about whether she is reliable or honest.
Once a woman realizes she is being monitored she will feel trapped. She may fear what the abuser knows about her and thus be less willing to leave him. She may be afraid to contact others for fear of endangering them, herself, or her children. She will become more isolated, intimidated and dependent on the abuser. And that is exactly what the abusive person wants.
How can you know if there’s spyware on your device?
There are signs that a spyware app might be installed on a smartphone or tablet.
• Have you received strange texts?
• Has your data usage increased a lot?
• Does the battery run down quickly?
• Does the device get very hot?
• Does the device start up or shut down on its own?
• Is it difficult to shut it down?
• Is there background noise during your calls?
• Does the device seem to be slowing down?
There are also signs that spyware may be installed on a desktop computer or laptop.
• Does the device seem to be running more slowly?
• Is it crashing?
• Are there error messages?
• Are there unexpected pop-ups?
• Are there changes in the web browser settings?
• Are there new toolbars or apps in the browser?
• Are you directed to web sites you haven’t visited?
• Is it difficult to log into secure websites?
However, there are many different spyware apps and the technology is getting more and more sophisticated. If your device is not showing any of these signs but you are concerned about your partner or ex-partner’s behaviour, you should not assume your device is safe.
If you think your partner or ex-partner might be using spyware, you will want to think about his behaviour.
• Does he show up where you are, or know things you’ve said or done that he shouldn’t know?
• Is he jealous, possessive, controlling and/or abusive? Has he been that way with previous partners?
• Does he suspect that you’re doing something he doesn’t want you to do, such as leave him or have an affair (whether this is a reality or not)?
• Is the relationship ending? All forms of technology abuse tend to increase after separation, when the person has less day to day knowledge about what his former partner is doing.
• Are the two of you trying to decide on arrangements for children or settle property division issues? Is there a family court case underway? An ex-partner might also use spyware in an effort to collect evidence about a woman for family court matters.
• Is your partner or ex-partner experiencing personal issues, such job loss, substance use or mental health issues? These issues have been associated with abusive behaviour in relationships, although they are not the causes of such behaviour.
You will also want to think about other ways your partner or ex-partner could be monitoring you.
• He could be getting information from people you both know; for example, the children or a neighbour.
• He may be monitoring you through social media. Sometimes we forget what information we’ve shared on social media or who is in our network.
• He might be accessing your social media or email accounts if he knows or can guess your passwords.
• Photos can include location information. Does he have access to your photos?
• He might be accessing your phone when you don’t notice, looking at texts, your calendar and contacts.
• He may be monitoring the GPS on the car or your phone.
• If your home has security cameras, he may be using those to monitor you.
What you can do when spyware is being used against you
If you suspect or have discovered that your partner or ex-partner is using spyware to monitor you, try not to change your behaviour until you can get a safety plan in place.
This will likely be hard. You might feel really angry, frightened or hurt. But if you react — try to remove the spyware or start to do things differently with the hacked device — the abusive person will know. His tactics may change and he may increase his abuse.
If you are in this situation please seek help quickly and carefully. Managing technology abuse is complex and working with a support person is a really good idea.
Staff at women’s shelters and other women’s organizations, are experts at safety planning. They can also connect you to legal assistance and strategize about evidence collection.
Landlines at work or a friend’s home or payphones are also a safer option than your own phone for speaking with support people.
You could use computers in public places, such as a library or community organization.
Once you are on a safer device, you can also set up a new email account for communicating with support people. Gmail and Yahoo are two free web-based email services that a person can access from any device with internet.
When you meet with support people, if you think it’s safe to do so, consider leaving your hacked device in the car and park at a local restaurant rather than at the support person’s location. Or you could wrap your phone in a scarf and put it at the bottom of your purse so that the microphone will not transmit clearly (although your location will still be shared with the abuser). Turning off a device is not enough as some spyware is able to turn devices back on. Turning off the device will also alert the abuser, if this is not something you usually do.
Spyware installed on a device will give the abusive person access to the usernames and passwords of any online account you log into from that device, such as your bank account, social media and work accounts. Therefore, these accounts are now vulnerable to the abuser, whether you access them from the device that has the spyware or from another device. Changing your passwords or stopping use of these accounts will alert the abuser that you know you’re under surveillance. If possible, continue to post to social media, email or text friends, etc., but remain neutral in your comments, until you have made a safety plan.
Whether the abusive partner is using spyware or other forms of technology, if it is safe for you to do so, you could record the incidents that made you think you were being monitored.
• You could do this with pen and paper in a location the abuser likely cannot monitor, such as on the bus or in the grocery store or at work.
• You will need to keep this document in a place that the abuser can’t or likely won’t access.
• You might also use this document to record other forms of abuse you’re being subjected to, such as his efforts to isolate you from friends and relatives, his interference with your job, his sexual violence, etc.
Creating a document like this will help you see that the surveillance is actually occurring, that you aren’t imagining it. It will show you how the technology abuse is part of his overall pattern of controlling behaviour. This document can also be used as evidence in both family and criminal court.
The use of technology to monitor and harass a woman is powerful evidence of abusive behaviour.
Spyware apps, when used to secretly monitor partners or former partners, are illegal and can result in criminal charges being laid against the person using them.
Therefore, don’t remove spyware from your device, your home or car until it can be documented by a third party, like a women’s service provider, a lawyer or the police.
Speak with a lawyer or the police or a court official about how to collect this evidence.
Even if criminal charges are not laid against the abusive person for using the spyware or other forms of technology to monitor you, this evidence can still be used in family court.
Removing a spyware app from a phone is possible by resetting the phone to the factory setting. Doing so will usually remove any evidence that spyware was installed. However, it’s much more secure to use a new phone. Some women’s organizations can provide their clients with replacement phones.
Even if the app is removed, or you get a new device, remember that your ex-partner will have the passwords for accounts you visited from the hacked device. The abuser likely will have also looked at all the information he could on the device, such as your photos, contacts, messages, etc. and any documents you worked on or had stored there, such as legal forms, financial information, records of abuse and personal journaling.
There are places you can get free help in dealing with technology abuse
In Ontario, you can get safety planning and evidence collection help from a Family Court Support Worker. While these workers may not know about spyware, they will know people in the community who can help. These workers are available at all family courts in the province and are usually based in local women’s organizations and shelters. Their locations are listed on the website of the Ministry of the Attorney General. Search for Family Court Support Work.
Staff at women’s shelters can also be very helpful, particularly with safety planning. Find a women’s shelter anywhere in Canada by visiting ShelterSafe.ca.
If you need family law information related to technology abuse, visit the Luke’s Place website Family Court and Beyond.ca. In our “Family Law and Court” section, we have information about collecting electronic evidence. In our “Keep Safe” section, we have information about other forms of technology abuse.
For legal help, Legal Aid Ontario provides a number of different legal services for people who are subjected to domestic abuse. Visit their site at LegalAid.on.ca.
TechSafety.org is an American website that provides lots of excellent information for online safety as well as strategies for collecting evidence of technology abuse.
I’m going to summarize what I’ve covered in this presentation.
There are different forms of technology an abusive partner or ex-partner can use to monitor & harass a woman. Some of these are common and legal forms of technology, like GPS’s and “Find my phone”. But other forms are illegal, and they are called “spyware” or “stalkerware” or “spouseware”.
Spyware can take the form of a small device or be an app that can easily be installed on a phone, desktop computer, laptop or tablet.
Spyware apps are illegal. They can monitor everything on a device, including the GPS, contacts, texts and calls. Some spyware apps use the camera and mic in a device to monitor what is going on around it. Some apps can turn a device on.
It is very difficult to tell if a spyware app has been installed. If you are suspicious, watch for changes in how the device functions.
Looking at the person’s behaviour might also give you clues that spyware is being used. Does he know things he shouldn’t? Are there no other ways he could have found out that information?
If you suspect or know you are being monitored, you should try not change your behavior and don’t remove the suspected app or device. Doing so will alert the abusive person and he may become more abusive. Also, this technology is evidence that can be used against him.
A woman in this situation should carefully get help in order to safety plan and collect the evidence.
Family Court Support Workers in Ontario and other women’s advocates can provide support. They can connect you to lawyers and other legal help as well. If a woman is afraid for her immediate safety or that of her children, she should call the police.
This presentation has been supported with a grant from the Canadian Women’s Foundation and its partners. Thank you!
References & resources
The BC Society of Transition Houses provides more detailed Mobile Spyware tips at: bcsth.ca/techsafetytoolkit/
For extensive information on technology abuse and safety information for women & their advocates, see the Resources section of TechSafety.org.
The Citizen Lab, which is part of the Munk School at the University of Toronto, released a report in 2019 called, Predator in Your Pocket, that looks at various spyware apps and the law. You can find the report at CitizenLab.ca.
Eva Galperin, who works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, leads the fight against spyware. You can follow her advocacy efforts at eff.org/about/staff/eva-galperin
MalwareBytes is an anti-virus, anti-malware company in the US. They have a number of articles on spyware. See blog.MalwareBytes.com/stalkerware