Kit #13. I am facing online abuse
Someone or many people are stalking and blackmailing me, and sending me death and rape threats. I feel unsafe both online and offline. Please help!
Online violence is violence and the strategies to combat technology-enabled violence are as diverse as the tactics being used to scare and silence you. You need to protect yourself and your associates from the online abuse as well as, in some cases, work with local groups or authorities to deal with and report on offline threats against you
Violence against women (VAW) such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual violence is extended, perpetrated and exacerbated in various ways online, but ICTs can be helpful for women to find help, connect with others and take action. With technology-related violence against women, be it cyber stalking, blackmail or hate speech, every situation is different. You may feel helpless, but you can take action.
Cyber stalking is a technologically enabled attack on a person for reasons of anger, revenge or control. It is much more likely that women will experience stalking than men, and more often this is done by an intimate partner. Sometimes this type of violence may also involve physical assault.
Cyber stalking includes harassment, humiliation and embarrassment of the person targeted; harassing family, friends and employers to isolate the person; tactics to make the target fearful; taking on the identity of the other person; constant surveillance and monitoring of activities and location (e.g. using Facebook notifications to find out where the person is going, using spyware, activating GPS).
What makes cyber stalking difficult to address are factors such as stalker anonymity; law enforcement’s assumption that a stalker located far away will not travel to follow up on threats; and the stalker encouraging online friends to participate in the harassment, thus increasing the person’s distress. Further, cyber stalking is not recognised in law in many countries, which means survivors of cyberstalking have no legal recourse.
Blackmail is the act of threatening to reveal damaging information about a person to the public, family or associates unless that person buys the blackmailer’s silence. The damage can be in the form of harm to reputation, well-being, employment, or in some contexts, to physical safety. Online sexualised blackmail is where blackmailers may steal, fake or use private and often sexualised images or correspondence and threaten to publish or distribute them without consent. The price demanded may be money or physical and emotional control of the person being blackmailed. In the case of what is known as “revenge porn“ (where private sexualised images or videos are published online without consent but without financial motive), the price seems to be pure humiliation and degradation of women. It can happen in many ways, from government surveillance for power, to manipulation of photos to humiliate, to images stolen for financial gain, to videos taken without consent, to partner surveillance, to images taken of violence and kept as a way to control someone.
Remember that blackmail is unacceptable and you have rights (PDF): a right to freedom of expression, a right to privacy and freedom from defamation, a right to freedom from violence and a right to protect your artistic work.
What you should do
Here are some strategies you can use to respond and protect yourself. However, this is not an exhaustive list. Do remember that it is not your fault and we recommend talking to trusted people in your life about this for help.
- Install a firewall, secure your Wi-Fi and turn off Bluetooth. Wi-Fi hotspots and Bluetooth connections can reveal your location and make it easier for people to hack your phone. When using public Wi-Fi, your line of defence is your firewall. A firewall will defend you from untrusted connections from the internet and local networks, which could let hackers and viruses access your computer. A firewall is the first programme on a computer that sees incoming data from the internet and the last programme to handle outgoing information.
- For your home connection, make sure the connection is protected by WPA2 security. WEP (another encryption standard used for securing Wi-Fi networks) is child’s play for hackers.
- Choose a very strong passphrase for the Wi-Fi connection.
- Install a firewall.
- Switch off your Bluetooth connection.
- Get an alternative SIM card. If a stalker can obtain your mobile number, they may harass you through SMS messages and phone calls. They may use it in combination with GPS to reveal that they know your location. Consider an alternate SIM card for private calls.
- Turn your phone off, switch out SIM cards and restart your phone.
- Don’t forget to switch out the private card when you’re finished.
- Keep the private SIM in a safe place.
- Disable GPS on your phone. GPS may tell you what coffee shops are nearby, but it can also let others know where you are. The majority of smartphones have GPS chips that can geo-locate the phone in seconds.
- Only enable GPS settings when you need them.
- Turn them off by navigating to Settings > Privacy > Location.
- Disable the GPS on your mobile camera. Photos have information embedded in their properties that include when and where you took them (if your camera or phone have a GPS). It can also be possible to decipher the location based on what’s in the image. This geographic info can be embedded in photos pinpointing exactly when and where the photo was taken. Together with the content, it can be easy to discern where you live, work or play.
- On an iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Location, and disable the option of “Camera”.
- On Android, go to the camera application. Under settings, turn “Location Tag” to “Off”.
- Protect your phone with a passphrase. If your phone is not passphrase protected, anyone who gets their hands on it can access your information. Passphrase hacking is common, and the more a stalker knows about you, the more likely they are to guess your passphrases. Passphrase protection will keep your data safer if you lose your phone or someone tries to use it without your permission.
- For more information refer to Kit #3: I need to keep my passphrases safe.
- Reset your passphrases regularly.
- Protect your computer and phone from spyware and malware. Malicious applications may contain spyware. The more capabilities your smartphone has, like GPS, the more those extras can be used to spy on you. Malware and spyware are used to track, record and watch what you do online.
- Install trusted anti-malware such as Spybot.
- Maintain privacy on social media. It’s very easy to glean information about where you live, the places you visit regularly and the people you care about from posts and pictures. Your friends might also unintentionally reveal information about you.
- Create a different email account for site registration. This will help avoid spam, and your personal email won’t be revealed if the online service doesn’t have good privacy practices.
- Leave optional fields blank. When registering online, only fill in the required fields and leave certain identifying information such as birthdate blank.
- Use a profile photo that doesn’t identify you. Choosing images that also protect your location can keep you from being recognised or found.
- Choose a screen name that isn’t personal. Many people have screen names that do not give away identifying characteristics. You might want to consider a user name that is gender-neutral.
- Review all of the material shared on your social media accounts and delete or restrict access to any information that identifies you personally or reveals personal details (especially photos). You can speed up the review process by downloading an archive of your account in searching through it. Make use of Facebook’s “View As” tool to see what your profile looks like to others.
- Refer to Kit #1. My email, Facebook or Twitter account was hijacked.
- Report abusive behaviour. Most popular social media platforms allow you to report online harassment and threats which can lead to the abusive accounts being banned. This may not lead to an end to the harassment, as the user can just create a new account, but it may will make it more for them.
- Use a secure chat option that is not incorporated into mainstream social networking services, preferably one that encrypts conversations. Many social networking sites offer chat options. This is one of the most insecure ways to communicate online. Online acquaintances can stalk you in chatrooms.
- Use Jitsi instead of Skype because it is more trusted.
- For your mobile phone consider Signal or Telegram. Be aware that both you and the person you are talking to should be using the same encrypted service.
- Refer to Kit #9. I need to chat in a secure manner.
- Switch off your webcam and place a sticker or piece of paper over the camera on your laptop or mobile phone. Stalkers use spyware to access webcams and film people without their knowledge or consent.
You can also denounce stalkers and seek redress. Here are some suggestions how you can do this.
Where to find more help
- Take Back the Tech (TBTT) Safety Toolkit
- Learn about Cyber stalking, Blackmail and Hate Speech
- How to talk to survivors
- What privacy and anonymity have to do with tech-related VAW
- What data storage has to do with tech-related VAW
- Zen and the art of making tech work for you