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Battling The Latest Weapon In Domestic Abuse -- Spyware

Domestic abuse advocates and a McAfee researcher warn that abusers are increasingly using spyware, keyloggers, and GPS devices to track and intimidate victims.

A woman, looking to get out of an abusive relationship, goes online to buy plane tickets for herself and her two small children, and then she e-mails a friend about her plan to leave. As she works to secretly put things in order, she doesn't realize her husband has downloaded spyware onto the computer and will soon know everything she's planning to do.

It's a scenario that security professionals and social workers say is happening more and more frequently. And this week, a McAfee researcher is meeting with domestic abuse advocates to help them fight the growing use of technology in abuse and stalking cases.

As high-tech tools become increasingly ingrained in our everyday lives, abusers and stalkers are increasingly using them to track and intimidate their victims, said Cindy Southworth, director and founder of the Safety Net Project, an organization working to end domestic violence. Making women and men -- as well as law enforcement -- aware of the tools that could be used against victims is an important step in protecting them.

"We hear story after story from victims and police about abusers installing spyware to monitor someone's moves, like researching domestic abuse shelters or buying bus tickets," Southworth told InformationWeek. "It can be potentially dangerous and even lethal. The highest risk time for victims' injury or death is when they leave or just after leaving. [For the abuser], it's all about maintaining control of the victim. If he finds out she's planning to leave, that could be deadly."

Once a year, advocates and social workers meet to hone their skills. This week, they're holding the "Technology Safety Training of Trainers" conference, and Hiep Dang, director of anti-malware research for McAfee, is educating trainees on the latest spyware and other tracking technology.

"I want the social advocates to put themselves in the shoes of the attacker," Dang said in an interview. "It's important because they need to see how the technology is being used against the victims themselves. Knowledge is power... It is pretty scary. This technology gives the attackers insight into their victims' lives."

Southworth said a week doesn't go by that they don't hear about spyware being used in a domestic abuse case. Abusers also are hacking into victims' e-mail accounts, while also using cell phones to send threatening text messages, GPS devices to track the victims' vehicles, and keyloggers.

She also said that using technology to control and abuse people is still new enough that many law enforcement officers don't take it seriously and fail to investigate. "Our biggest message is to believe victims," said Southworth. "Our experience is that all this high-tech stuff sounds like it's from a science fiction novel."

Dang offered tips for people who find themselves in a situation where they think someone might be capable of using technology to stalk or abuse them:

  • Everyone, regardless of their present situation, should have security software, including antivirus, anti-spyware, and firewalls, installed on their computers;
  • If a victim finds that an abuser has installed spyware on a computer, it should not be removed. That would let the abuser know that the victim is onto him/her, and it also should be retained to be used as evidence at trial;
  • If a victim is going to buy tickets or do research about domestic abuse shelters or divorce laws, do it from a public computer, such as those at a library or an Internet cafe;
  • Spyware has become more sophisticated, so it's often difficult to tell if it's installed on a computer. Victims should be suspicious if their abuser has knowledge of private online conversations or unexpectedly shows up at a location where the victim planned to be.

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