Spy Stalker: New cheap, easy way to spy on others that puts domestic violence victims at risk

(WJLA graphic)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) –Technology has become an increasing problem when it comes to domestic violence, with abusers using more web, phone and app-based tools to intimidate and control their victims. And the impact of that technology, according to experts, means abuse that can be more invasive and underground.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), based in Washington, D.C., has been at the forefront in studying this trend, through its Safety Net Project. The organization surveyed survivors and the agencies that serve them, releasing a study earlier this year that shows the effects of changing technology in abusive relationships.

“What technology does, is it gives new tools to abusers and extends their reach,” said Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Project and vice president of development and innovation at NNEDV.

According to NNEDV’s report, 72 percent of programs dealt with survivors whose locations were tracked by smart phones or other devices; 65 percent of the programs said victims they worked with had abusers who accessed their computer or monitored their activities online. And more than half the programs reported working with victims whose abusers had misused listening devices to eavesdrop on their conversations or their activities.

The first man Lyn Twyman ever loved is the same one who tried to kill her. For three years, she says, her first boyfriend abused and controlled her.

“I kept thinking, God, if I could just have another day somehow get me out of this situation so he'll never be able to find me or get to me again,” Twyman told ABC 7.

Twyman says her boyfriend monitored every call coming in and out of her phone. That was back in a time before social media made it easy to keep tabs on someone’s activity. But Twyman knows that thanks to technology, abusers can go underground. She’s seen how easy it can be, working with victims through the non-profit she founded, L.A.S.E.R.S. (Leaving Abuse, Supporting Everyone, Restoring Survivors).

“The problem has escalated,” Twyman said. “It's magnified.”

Southworth says there are products being marketed directly to stalkers and abusers.

From hidden cameras to keylogging hardware that keeps track of every stroke you make on a keyboard, technology that aids in domestic violence has blossomed in the digital age. But Southworth expresses the greatest concern about newer, under-the-radar apps that make spying on your significant other a stealth operation.

“The goal for them is to monitor the victim 24 hours a day, even when the offender is not present,” Southworth said.

The ABC 7 I-Team found spyware apps available on the web for as little as $20. They show a phone's call history, text messages, web searches and more. Many are marketed as a way to keep kids safe or monitor employees. But others are clear in their message: this is how you catch a cheater. And Southworth says the results can spur abuse, saying, “There are just so many that are absolutely brazenly marketing it as a way to spy on their spouse and commit a crime.”

Legal experts say simply using these apps could be a crime. That’s because some offer a way to listen to voice mails and intercept calls on the sly. They allow you to essentially bug someone's phone and listen in to private conversations, something American University Washington College of Law professor Michael Carroll says is illegal.

Carroll says this kind of technology falls under decades-old wiretapping laws that prohibit surreptitious interception of communication. And he says not only is it against the law to use apps that intercept calls, but it could also be illegal to sell them.

The Department of Justice is cracking down on the technology. Earlier this year, the agency indicted the CEO of Virginia-based Stealth Genie, a spyware app company that monitors calls and communication undetected. It's the first case of its kind.

“This case is supposed to be a warning shot across the industry's bow,” Carroll said.

But it’s not stopping every company. We still found several spyware apps for sale with call monitoring that can't be traced. Getting rid of them is the mission of advocates like Twyman and Southworth, who says, “One down, hundreds to go.”

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