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Technology and safety

Karen Bentley, National Director, Safety Net Australia Project, WESNET
25 NOV 2016

One of the most common technology questions from support workers and people experiencing violence is 'How do I tell if there is spyware on a phone or computer?' followed by 'And how do I get it off?'. This case study helps to answer both of those questions and where you can go for further support.

Dealing with spyware

Spyware is malicious software used to access personal information without consent. It can capture a huge amount of information including internet browsing activity, text messages, social media activity and even facilitate an abuser to listen to phone calls.  There are a variety of ways it can be installed on a device, including bogus links in innocent looking emails or messages.

Spyware is designed to be difficult to detect and remove. While some might show up with spyware scanning programs, there’s no guarantee. 

The most common way to work out if there is spyware present is that the abuser knows things they shouldn’t or couldn’t know without having access to the device or computer. Even if you do confirm spyware is present on a device, it still may not be safe to remove it because:

  • you cannot be 100 percent sure that it has been removed
  • finding or attempting to remove it may tip-off an abuser, leading to an escalation in violence
  • you may destroy valuable evidence of the abuse that has occurred - it is illegal to install spyware

What you can do

The best strategy for dealing with suspected spyware is to use a safer device.

Safer devices could include:

  • a new or uncompromised mobile phone
  • public computers, such as those at libraries and shopping centres
  • a computer or mobile that the abuser has never had access to

Depending on their situation, a person affected by domestic or family violence might choose to keep using a compromised device for most things, but switch to a safer device for any activities they don’t want their abuser to know about.  Another option might be deliberately leaving a compromised phone at a friend’s house while the survivor attends a support service. 

 Other tips are:

  • Trust the client’s instincts, people generally know their abuser the best
  • Suggest keeping a log of what is happening and look for patterns and trends
  • Include technology in safety planning
  • Access a new smartphone through the WESNET Safe Connections program

Further resources

Visit website

For more information about training, or access to smartphones and pre-paid credit for women and children experiencing domestic or family violence, visit WESNET online or call 1800 WESNET (1800 937 638).