We are facing vast changes in our daily lives due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Some of us, mostly women and children, however, are experiencing more immediate dangers. Reports of domestic violence have spiked across the globe as countries implement social distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Canada is no exception and the severity of domestic abuse that is being reported is increasing.
“In times of social distancing and mass lay-offs, people are working from home, they are with their abuser, and having a hard time reaching out,” warns Rhiannon Wong, Technology Safety Project Lead at BC Society of Transition Houses. Right now, technology is a high-stakes link between survivors and their access to support networks and services. With that in mind, we’ve compiled resources on tech safety to support people experiencing domestic violence during this time.
Knowing the signs
While in isolation and social distancing, understanding the technical signs of technology-based abuse can be difficult. In a recent New York Times article, Sam Harvon, PhD candidate at Cornell Tech, warns that poor battery life and quickly depleted data are likely signs that an abuser is using spyware to monitor and control social media accounts, text messages, and GPS location.
For less tech-savvy abusers, direct monitoring of devices and accounts is possible by reviewing web history logs and tracking geolocation tags on apps like Find My iPhone, Snapchat maps, or on social media posts, such as on Instagram and Facebook check-ins. Further, take note of where you leave your personal electronics and any online activity you left open. A change in location or closed activity could be a sign of monitoring.
Tools and Strategies for Survivors Using Technology for Support and Assistance
While there is no set scenario for the ways in which a survivor can experience violence, the resources below are meant to be applied by the survivor to their own context. In emergency situations, call 9-1-1 for help.
If you are experiencing domestic violence or suspect you are at-risk and don’t feel comfortable talking on the phone, there are alternatives.
Alternatively, online chat rooms through local shelters and national helplines are available to listen and provide counsel. For male-identifying survivors, gender-specific services and resources are here.
Newcomers to Canada can access safety and legal information in multiple languages using this registry.
Religion-based services are also available, such as NISA Helpline for Muslim women seeking support and assistance.
Some services are still being provided in-person, but if the abuser is tech-savvy avoid parking near the shelter.
If you suspect you are being monitored but aren’t sure, do not attempt to search for the spyware or delete it. Many spyware applications notify the person who installed the technology into your devices and doing so without a safety plan in place may put you at risk. Instead, consider downloading a tech safety app, such as TechSafety, on a secure device or ask an ally to download it on their device to share the safety information with you.
Assaulted Women’s Helpline offers tech-specific advice on monitoring and keeping safe. If safe to do so, you can call toll-free at 1-866-863-0511. Deaf, blind and people with hearing impairments can call their TTY helpline at 1-866-863-7868.
If downloading an app is not possible, you can access tech safety information in incognito mode. While incognito, your searches will be private and unsearchable by others using your device. Ensure you have properly closed the incognito search window, especially if this information is being accessed through a smartphone. In addition, you can clear your browsing history of your recent searches if you forget to hit “incognito” beforehand. Do not clear your entire search history as this can cause suspicion from the abuser. Additionally, several shelters and violence prevention apps have mechanisms built-in to hide activity.
If your technology is being monitored but you cannot or do not want to leave your home, you can still use the tools mentioned above to increase your privacy and stay connected.
Ask your friends and family to check-in on a regular basis through online messaging, video calling, and by phone. Creating signals or codewords can be effective for monitoring the situation.
In cases where a survivor may not want to leave the home due to concerns over COVID-19 or are immuno-compromised, please contact your local shelter to seek alternatives. Additional housing is popping up across Canada with some hotels offering free or discounted rooms for survivors. Further, some shelters are requiring and providing separate rooms for survivors to complete the recommended 14-day quarantine.
How the general public can support survivors and services during COVID-19
Go old-school in sharing information. This could include posting domestic violence resource information in grocery stores or leaving information packages in public and accessible places, such as “free” boxes.
To support the work of local shelters and their services during these uncertain times, Women’s Shelters Canada recommends monetary donations or checking local shelter websites for in-kind donation requests, such as fabric face masks and hand sanitizers.
For additional guides and apps on tech safety for survivors, see the following:
Seeking Help Online provides additional safety considerations before reaching out through technology
Guides and information on the different ways technology can be used for violence and how to stay safe, see here.
The recently published BC Society of Transition Houses’ Guide for Canadian Women Experiencing Technology-facilitated Violence provides additional strategies while their Love is Patient Postcard provides a summary of tech-specific tips in English and French.
For child survivors, MediaSmarts has compiled a list of educational tech safety games that teach young children and teens how to stay safe online. This can be crucial in cases where tech-savvy abusers target the child survivor for information using spyware or a fake social media account.
For general guides to incorporate tech safety into organizations, check out these valuable resources:
Service providers or persons in a support network can use this Digital Services Toolkit to provide guidance and technical support to survivors during a public health crisis.
Employers with remote workers see this blog post. The article offers suggestions and additional resources on how to protect your employees’ safety while they work from home.
Know of a local organization or support group working for domestic violence survivors in Canada? Please leave a link in the comment section below. These trying times have come with great uncertainty, but what we can be certain of is how we can make people feel. We thank the frontline workers who are continuing to show up for survivors of domestic violence. As always, we are in this together and you are not alone.