Period Tracker Apps and Safety

After the recent supreme court ruling overturning Roe vs Wade, many of you are rightfully concerned about your rights, your health, and your safety. One of the ways this has manifested is mistrust of many period tracker apps when you can’t control your data or ensure it’s being properly safeguarded- the worry being that the data will be given or sold to states that are adding criminal penalties for abortions, other losses of pregnancy, and other forms of heath care. Many users have started uninstalling their period tracker apps out of concern, particularly those in such states.

Today, Operation Safe Escape began development of a period tracker app that we will make available for free for Android and iOS. There will be no ads or monetization of any kind. Additionally, the following privacy features are intended to keep users safe and able to make health decisions without compromising their safety or sense of safety:

  • The app will not access the internet for any reason
  • The only data collected by the app will be what the user enters and what is necessary for the app to function on the device. None of this data will ever be sold, shared, or given away. Since even we can’t access it, we couldn’t anyway
  • The information will exist only on the user’s device, not the cloud
  • All data will be encrypted
  • All data on the app will be in control of the user, and the app will allow a quick wipe of the data
  • There will be a space for safety resources and links

Critically, the app will be open source to allow the community (and the users themselves) to know exactly what the app is doing and how their data is being stored. There should be nothing to hide. We will be looking for other ways to protect users from other threats, such as cases where an abusive partner may get access to the device.

More information will be provided as development continues. If you have any input or ideas, please feel free to reach out at info@safeescape.org

Reproduction and body autonomy is a common target by abusers. Reproductive coercion is a form of abuse where the abuser forces the victim to get pregnant or terminate a pregnancy against their will. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 25% of domestic violence survivors have experienced this form of abuse. Reproductive health is directly related to domestic violence, and Operation Safe Escape stands against all forms of abuse.

June 28, 2022 update:

The question was asked, why create a new tool versus supporting existing open source projects? That’s a great question.

Historically, we’ve tried both creating our own tools and requesting changes / updates to existing open source ones. We admire and appreciate the open-source maintainers; they keep the world running. But we have to consider and include our primary mission in everything that we do. I this case, ensuring that the users impacted by domestic violence and stalking have their concerns and needs quickly addressed. This is something we want to do to help everyone, but survivors of abuse sometimes have different needs. Our perception of risk doesn’t stop with any government, although this is certainly a concern. We’re not only concerned about government overreach and weaponization of the courts, we’re also concerned about the abuser trying to control the individual’s fundamental reproductive rights. By developing our own tool, change control and approval is less of a concern. For example, including information and resources on reproductive coercion might seem important to us, but might not be a change that’s accepted on another team’s app (not assuming, just an example). Another issue is that abusers adapt quicker than the government does, so the ability to very quickly add new features, information, and tools can make a major difference for a specific set of users. 

Removing Unwanted Network Devices from your Wifi

In some cases, an abusive partner may add new devices to a wireless network in order to monitor and harass their victim. For example, cameras, microphones, smart home devices, and more are relatively easy to conceal and may be used to listen in on conversations.

When the bad actor (that is, whoever is trying to cause harm) has  previously had access to the wireless network, it may be possible that they added those devices to the wireless network to remotely access and receive information. This article will discuss how to identify and remove any unauthorized wireless devices from your wireless network.

If possible, you should look for connected devices any time you’re concerned that your conversations may be being monitored. At the very least, you should follow this process when the abusive partner leaves the home permanently- especially if they had access to the network.

Option 1: Using your router’s browser or web interface

(Please note: logging into the router as administrator will leave a record in the device logs. It will show that the administrator account has logged in, but won’t show who was using it.)

If you’re not familiar, your router is the device, most often provided by your service provider, that connects you to the internet. It’s normally a black or silver box with network jacks on the back, status lights on the front, and it might have an antenna or two on it. If you’re having trouble identifying it, you can always call up your service provider or do an internet search for “[internet provider] router models” (without the quotes).

The router has a web interface that you can access through the browser in order to make configuration changes. The instructions for doing this would have been provided in the documentation that came with the router, but you can also look online if you know the model number. In many cases, the information is on a sticker that can be found on the back or bottom of the router.

You’ll need the device’s IP address to connect to it. Type that number into the browser’s address bar, where you would normally type in a website address. This will take you to the web interface login screen. The username and password, if it hasn’t been changed, will be found in the documentation provided with the router. If it’s been changed or if you don’t know that information, contact your ISP and they’ll help you recover the information. You might also find the default login information online by searching “default login” and your router model number.

The specific location for this information may vary depending on the model and brand of router, but it will generally be under a link, tab, or button called “attached devices,” “connected devices,” or “DHCP clients.” You’ll probably find this on the wifi configuration page or on the status page. This may also be on the main screen for some devices.

  • On may D-Link brand routers, this can be found by clicking Status, then Wireless.
  • On many Linksys routers, you’ll find this option under Status > Local Network > DHCP Clients Table.

The list can be confusing at first, but it will show you what devices are connected to the network. Note that if you’re only looking at the “DHCP” devices, you might not see everything. Make sure to look at anything that shows connected devices. If you’re not sure, refer to the device documentation or contact your ISP.

Looking at this list will give you an idea of what devices are connected to your network. Look for anything unusual or that you don’t recognize. If you see a hostname that looks suspicious, search the web for the recognizable parts of the name to try to get an idea of what it might be.

An example interface showing connected devices. Courtesy how-to-geek.

Note that you are likely to see things you don’t recognize, and in many cases that’s normal. Your phones and computers aren’t the only things you’d expect to find here; you’ll also likely to find your home security system, video game consoles, authorized smart home devices, televisions, and more.

This is a good basic step to take, but it’s not foolproof. Device names can be changed or faked to look legitimate. If possible, additional steps should be taken to make sure you know exactly what’s on your network.

Option 2: Change the WiFi Key

Hopefully, you’re using the strongest encryption available on your device, which may be WPA3 if available. Otherwise, WPA2 should be an option. If neither option is available, contact your ISP for a new router because your current one is likely obsolete and needs to be upgraded or replaced. The type of encryption can be checked on the password settings page.

The good news is once you change your password, it will kick all devices off the network until they’re updated with the correct password. This will effectively remove any unauthorized devices off the network and a good way to ensure only devices you know about and approve are connected. This step should be done as soon as possible, especially since your wireless signal can often reach outside the home.

Refer to your system documentation for any wireless devices that will need to be reauthorized, such as smart TVs, cell phones, home surveillance systems, etc.

Consider reviewing the router configuration page after each device you add, so you’ll recognize it when you check up later.

Option 3: Ask Your Service Provider for Help

If you’re not comfortable or are having trouble logging into the router, contact your service provider and explain to them that you’re concerned about unauthorized devices and unauthorized access. They also have an interest in making sure that no one can use your network without your permission, so they will be able to assist you. They may send out a technician that will help confirm your settings and identify any rogue devices.

Option 4: Reset Your Router

This is the most secure option, because it will restore your router to a known-good configuration and remove any rogue devices.

If you’re not able to access your router’s web interface, you can reset it to the default settings. This will re-enable the default passwords as well, which will be noted in the device documentation, affixed to the router itself, of may be found online.

The process for each device may vary, and can be found in the device documentation or online. In most cases, there’s a small hole on the back of the router that says “reset.” Unplug the device. A small pin or paperclip can be used to press the button inside the hole; hold it down for 30 seconds, then remove the pin. Plug in the device again, and it should be reset to its default configuration.

Note that any custom configurations or passwords, including for WiFi access, will be removed and will have to be re-added.

A Whole New You: Name Changes and Identity Updates for Survivors of Domestic Violence

A Whole New You: Name changes and identity updates for survivors of domestic violence

Leaving an abusive relationship is the start of a new life. And, sometimes, that new life comes with a new identity in order to remain safe. This article will discuss two important elements of establishing a new identity: the name change and obtaining a new social security number.

Name Change

A court-ordered name change is obtained by petitioning the court in the county in which you reside. This is generally approved, unless the court believes that the name change is intended to defraud creditors. If everything is in order the court will issue an order authorizing you to start using the requested name.

Paradoxically, many jurisdictions require a public notification, generally in a newspaper, of the name change. The purpose is to ensure creditors are aware of the name change and have the opportunity to pursue the debts against the new name. However, requiring publication of a name change can also alert a stalker or abusive ex-partner to the new identity.

It’s important to understand the laws in your state when pursuing a legal name change. Whenever possible, seek legal aid or qualified legal assistance if there’s any concern about your safety or legal options.

18 states allow sealed name changes for victims of crime, to include survivors of domestic violence when there is a reasonable concern for safety. Those states are:

  • Arizona [Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 12-601]
  • California [Cal. Civ. Proc. Code §§1275-1279.6]
  • Georgia [GA Code § 19-12-1 (2020))]
  • Minnesota, only for applicants in a witness and victim protection program [Minn. Stat. Ann. §§ 259.10-259.13]
  • Missouri [Mo. Ann. Stat. § 527.290]
  • Montana [Mont. Code Ann. §§ 27-31-201]
  • Nevada [NV Rev Stat § 41.280 (2020)]
  • New Mexico [NM Stat § 40-8-2 (2020)]
  • New York [New York Civil Rights Law section 64-a(2)]
  • Ohio Ohio [Rev. Code Ann. § 2717.11 (2021)]
  • Oklahoma [(12 OK Stat § 12-1633 (2020)]
  • Oregon, for participants in the state Address Confidentiality Program [ORS 192.826]
  • Pennsylvania [54 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 701-705]
  • South Dakota [S.D. Codified Laws §§ 21-37-5.2]
  • Virginia [Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-217]
  • Washington [Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 4.24.130]
  • Wisconsin [Wis. Stat. Ann. § 985.07]
  • Wyoming [Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-25-103]

These states will, when certain conditions are met, seal all records of the name change

28 States either don’t require publication of name changes or allow waiver of the publication requirement. However, these states do not currently have a mechanism for sealing name changes even when a risk exists.

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • DC
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas (in Kansas, there is no requirement unless directed by the court)
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • New Hampshire (in New Hampshire, there is no requirement unless directed by the court)
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia

There are only five states that will not waive publication requirements and do not seal name change records:

  • Delaware
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Nebraska
  • Rhode Island (varies by location)

If there is a safety or security concern, it may be worth exploring other options after establishing (even temporary) residency in a different state.

Social Security Number

Another important piece of staying safe and secure after a name change is changing your social security number, if you meet the requirements to get a new number. This will help prevent a stalker or former partner from potentially running a credit report and obtaining potentially sensitive information about your location.

Until relatively recently, the Social Security Administration (SSA) would not issue a new number unless there was evidence that the number itself had been misused. Fortunately, this is no longer necessary in cases of harassment or abuse.

From the SSA fact sheet (https://www.ssa.gov/pressoffice/domestic_fact.html): “The SSA joins with other Federal agencies to provide greater assistance to victims of domestic violence. Some victims seeking to elude their abuser and reduce the risk of further violence choose to establish a new identity.

Applications for a new social security number must be made in person at any social security office. Bring evidence of your age, identity (to include both old and new names), and citizenship status. If new numbers are being requested for your children, bring court documentation showing that you have custody. The SSA will require evidence documenting the harassment or abuse. From the fact sheet: “The Social Security Administration will assist you in obtaining any additional corroborating evidence, if needed. The best evidence comes from third parties, such as police, medical facilities or doctors and describes the nature and extent of the domestic violence. Other evidence might include court restraining orders, letters from shelters, letters from family members, friends, counselors, or others with knowledge of the domestic violence.”

Address Confidentiality Program

All states have some form of Address Confidentiality Program (ACP), although the specifics will vary from one state to another. These programs provide a state-owned mailing address that is separate from your physical address, allowing you to use that address for things such as utilities, voter registration, driver’s licenses, and more. Any mail you receive at that address will be forwarded to your address of choice, but the forwarding information is not available to the public.

This is, of course, most helpful for after you’ve already moved. Using a confidential address will help prevent your address from showing up in online “people searches” and being otherwise discoverable.

Your local courthouse, advocate, or attorney can help you figure out what options are available to you.

Conclusion

Increasingly, federal, state, and local governments recognize the challenges faced by survivors of domestic violence and other crimes. By understanding the laws in your area, you can take steps to keep yourself safe and start your new life.

Bill to protect pets from domestic violence abuse clears Utah House

Legislation to include pets in personal protective orders easily passed the House on Friday

By 

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The Utah Legislature is one step closer to allowing pets to be included in personal protective orders after the House approved HB175 by a 69-2 vote on Friday.

According to sponsor Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, 71% of women at domestic violence shelters say their abusers also threatened, injured, or in some cases, killed their pets “as a means of control.” She said 25% of survivors return to their abusers because their abuser threatens them with their pet.

“I know people always ask me why I run sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking legislation, and I think I do it because someone has to be that voice,” Romero said. “And in the time of COVID right now, there are a lot of people in very vulnerable situations. I want to make sure that we continue to say, ‘We see you’ and they get the help they need and they protect themselves, their children and their pets.”

2021 report from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found the U.S. saw an 8.1% increase in domestic violence instances over the first year of the pandemic. Isolation, job loss and the stresses of child care and homeschooling may have contributed to the increase, according to the report.

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee endorsed HB175 last week, with all present committee members voting in favor. The bill allows individuals to petition the court to include pets on a personal protective order or stalking injunction — whether the pet is owned by the victim or by the abuser.

The bill would have Utah join 35 other states with similar laws, Romero said.

Rachel Heatley spoke in support of the bill during a committee meeting on Jan. 21, calling domestic violence a “secondary pandemic” brought on by the isolation caused by COVID-19. Heatley is the advocacy director for the Humane Society of Utah.

“What we see here is a significant problem of interpersonal violence,” she said, referencing a Farmington man who was arrested last year for abusing several women and torturing animals that belonged to them — including decapitating a cat and waving the severed head around “to terrify her while he laughed.”

Abigail Benesh, an attorney with the Humane Society, said there is a “significant correlation” between domestic abuse, animal abuse, elder abuse and child abuse.

“Abusers often exploit the emotional attachments that victims have with their pets,” she said. “That has them become pawns in this cruel game of coercion, manipulation and control in order to create an environment of fear and induced compliance.”

Residents — many of whom were victims of domestic abuse — also urged the committee to approve the bill. Inguinn Tersten said her teenage daughter has a brain disease and spinal cord injury, and they rely on a service dog to alert her if her daughter needs medical attention.

“My daughter’s service dog was severely used to threaten us as we were trying to break out of an abusive relationship,” Tersten said. “Every time we tried to get out my ex would control it with the dog. He knew we wouldn’t leave the dog behind because of what the dog does for my daughter.”

Jessica Gonzales said she had been in an abusive relationship where her boyfriend would threaten to lock her dog outside in freezing temperatures if she didn’t come home. She eventually escaped, but said it took weeks before she was able to testify before a grand jury in order to get her dog back.

“If a bill like this would have existed, I probably would have left a lot sooner,” she said.

Reps. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, and Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, were the only two “no” votes in the house. The bill now goes to the Senate, where the floor sponsor is Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville.

Protecting your Facebook Account (and your Privacy!)

Facebook, as we know it today, started in 2004 as TheFacebook- a directory of students at Harvard University. Almost immediately it, and it’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, were embroiled on controversy about privacy, security, and integrity. These controversies continue today, with concerns about user tracking, data handling, and privacy in general. This guide will discuss the options you have to protect your information.

This guide is current as of Jan 27, 2022.

Original TheFacebook Page
The original login page for what is now Facebook

There’s a saying that goes, “if you’re not paying for a service, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” It doesn’t cost anything to create an account, which means that the company must make its money elsewhere. And they do. Last year, Facebook made $29 billion, mostly from selling ads. And those ads are often targeted to you using data Facebook collects.

Have you ever had a conversation with a friend, only to later find Facebook suggesting a product one of you mentioned in your feed? Maybe you’ve searched for a solution to some problem you’re facing, only to find ads that seem to address what you were looking for? This is called “targeted ads” and it can range from annoying to dangerous. For example, a LGBTQ+ teen may not feel comfortable or safe coming out to their family, but targeted ads may raise questions they’re not ready to answer. Similarly, transgender individuals have been forced to answer difficult questions when Facebook recommended their private account to friends and family.

You have a right to privacy and security.

To access Facebook’s settings, click the arrow in the upper-right corner of the screen. This will allow you to set your privacy and security controls.

Accessing facebook settings

1. Prevent Facebook from using your information for targeted ads

Click “Privacy Shortcuts,” which will take you to the Privacy and Security page. Scroll down until you see “Your Facebook Information.” Here, you can see what Facebook knows about you and what data they collect. Click “View or clear your off-Facebook activity.”

This is how Facebook describes “off-Facebook activity”:

Off-Facebook activity includes information that businesses and organizations share with us about your interactions with them. Interactions are things like visiting their website or logging into their app with Facebook. Off-Facebook activity does not include customer lists that businesses use to show a unique group of customers relevant ads.

How did Facebook receive your activity?

When you visit a website or use an app, these businesses or organizations can share information about your activity with us by using our business tools. We use this activity to personalize your experience, such as showing you relevant ads. We also require that businesses and organizations provide notice to people before using our business tools.

The phrase “clear history” is a little bit misleading in this context. This option doesn’t actually clear your history, but it does disassociate the data from your account and prevents targeted ads. You can also see which sites are sharing information about you with Facebook.

You can further restrict Facebook’s ability to display targeted ads by:

  1. Go to settings
  2. Select “Ads”
  3. Select “Ad settings”
  4. Select “Data about your activity from partners”
  5. Toggle it off
  6. Select “Ads shown off of Facebook”
  7. Toggle it off
  8. Select “Social interactions”
  9. Toggle it off

2. Turn off location tracking

iPhone:

  1. Go to settings
  2. Select “Privacy”
  3. Select “Location Services”
  4. Tap on “Facebook”
  5. Select “while using the app” or, if you don’t need Facebook to track your location, “Never”

Android:

  1. Go to settings
  2. Select “Location”
  3. Select “App location permissions”
  4. Tap on “Facebook”
  5. Select “Allow only while using the app” or “deny”

3. Limit information Facebook shares with its partners

Many websites allow you to log in with your Facebook account, rather than creating a new account for that site. While easy and convenient, it also allows Facebook to collect additional information about you, and allows the site to collect some information from your Facebook account. This can include your name, email address, photo, and other public information.

View which sites are currently collecting information about you by:

  1. Go to settings and privacy
  2. Select “Settings”
  3. Select “Apps and Websites”
  4. Click “See More”

Here, you’ll be able to see which sites are connected and sharing information. Click “remove” to disconnect the site.

4. Use two-factor authentication

As in… always use two-factor authentication. Whenever you can.

Two-factor authentication requires a second form of validation when logging into an account. You’re probably familiar with the concept, such as when you’re trying to log into your bank and you have to confirm that it’s really you through the app or by typing in a code that you receive via text message. The benefit of this is that even if someone were to guess or steal your password, your account will still be safe as long as your second authenticator is in your control. This also serves as a way to detect if someone is trying to break into your account.

Two of the most common methods of two-factor authentication are text-based and an app, such as one provided by the service or a dedicated app such as Google Authenticator or Authy. While both are better than a username and password alone, an app-based solution is preferred over text messages which are less secure.

To enable two-factor authentication on your Facebook account:

  1. Go to settings
  2. Select “Security and Login”
  3. Select “Set Up Two-Factor Authentication”
  4. Click “Get Started”

5. Make sure only people that you want to find you, can find you

The default Facebook privacy settings make it very easy to find your account in the search bar, or even in search engines like Google. You can change this by:

  1. Go to settings
  2. Select “Privacy”
  3. Find “Do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your profile?”
  4. Select “Edit”
  5. Unselect the checkbox

On the same page, you can change how people find you within Facebook:

  1. Select “Who can look you up using the phone number you provided?”
  2. Change to “Only me”
  3. select “Who can look you up using the email address you provided?”
  4. Change to “Only me”

6. Limit who is able to see your content

You can limit who’s able to see your content, such as profile, photos, videos, and updates. This should be restricted as much as possible to ensure only people you trust can see your content.

  1. Go to settings
  2. Select “Settings and Privacy”
  3. Select “See more privacy settings”
  4. Select “Privacy”
  5. Select “Who can see your future posts?”
  6. Edit as desired
  7. Select “Limit the audience for old posts on your timeline”
  8. Edit as desired

7. Conduct a privacy and security checkup

Facebook also offers a privacy and security checkup, which shows you who can see your posts, who’s able to message you, and more. This should be done every couple of months, or more often if possible. This is because Facebook occasionally changes its security and privacy settings, which may impact your account without your knowledge.

This is a good way to catch anything that you may have overlooked, and display your sharing settings, privacy options, and security information.

8. Remember that what you put on Facebook may be re-shared, regardless of your privacy settings

No matter how secure you make your account, you can’t control the actions of other people. So be careful what you post, which can be shared with people outside your trusted circle. For example, if you talk about your upcoming vacation, one of your Facebook contacts may, often without intended to cause harm, mention it to someone that you don’t want to know. So be careful what you post online- regardless of which platform you’re using.

Facebook, like other social networking sites, can be a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, and a powerful tool for finding and giving support. However, as with any online service, there is some risk involved. By taking advantage of the security and privacy options that Facebook offers, and by being careful about what you post, you can minimize the risk and get back to enjoying time with your friends online.

Should you intervene if you witness domestic violence in public?

It’s a scenario many of us can imagine, or maybe it’s one that you’ve actually seen play out: you’re shopping for groceries when you hear a raised voice from down the aisle.

“Why do you keep buying things we don’t need?”

“I’m sorry, you’re right. We don’t…”

“I’m sick of you, can’t you do anything right?”

You recognize the signs of a survivor of domestic violence. Their eyes are downcast, their arms are wrapped around themselves, and they are clearly afraid of the person they’re with. They clearly need help.

Do you intervene? Will it help the survivor, or place them in greater risk? Is it safe to say anything? Those questions might echo through your mind, and it can be hard to know what’s the right thing to do in such a situation. The answer is deceptively simple- do something. What that is, isn’t quite as simple.

There are three fundamental things to consider if you witness domestic violence in public. The first is your safety and the safety of those around you. Abusers often fear confrontation with those who aren’t their victim, but some are prone to violence- especially if they’re under the influence.  The second is the safety of the survivor, who may be at risk of harm if the situation escalates. The third is the long-term well-being of the survivor, who may take the opportunity to escape if given. Or, if they don’t leave at that time, having others confirm that the abuser’s behavior is not okay may break through the gaslighting  and emotional manipulation they’ve likely endured.

One of the hidden risks in intervention is that the abuser may blame the survivor for the actions of bystanders, especially if they physically intervene. This can inadvertently result in greater danger later on, behind closed doors. However, in addition to the benefit of validating and encouraging the survivor, careful intervention may show the them that there’s support available to them, giving them hope and strength when they’re ready to leave.

This list is not exhaustive, but includes some signs that a person you may see in public is impacted by domestic violence. Remember that they may exhbit all or none of these signs, domestic violence can look very different from one case to another.

  • They seem afraid of their partner and anxious around them
  • They cut conversations short when their partner comes near
  • Their partner criticizes or humiliates them in front of other people
  • Their partner orders them around and makes all the decisions, such as what to buy or how much to spend
  • They appear nervous and depressed, or very quiet
  • You observe physical injuries
  • Their children seem afraid of the partner or unwilling to be around them

If you intervene, remember that the primary goal is to prevent a situation from escalating. Even better, to create an opportunity to check in with the individual and see if they need help.

There are many ways you can help to stop a situation from escalating, depending on the specific circumstances. For example:

  • Find a reason to be within the abuser’s line of sight. By moving elsewhere in the aisle or to another spot on the sidewalk, you can have a pretext for being within the abuser’s line of sight. Just knowing that people can see or hear their behavior may cause them to stop.
  • Make some noise. If the abuser assumes they’re in a private space, make some noise so they know they can be observed. Cough or start a conversation on your phone. Turn up your music. Whatever it takes to remove the blinders that cause the abuser to focus on the person in front of them
  • There’s safety in numbers. If you don’t feel comfortable intervening alone, ask someone to go with you. Or if you’re not comfortable approaching at all, let someone know so they can assist. If the situation appears dangerous or to be escalating, call 911
  • Record and document everything. If possible, record the interaction on your phone to help the survivor get help from law enforcement and the court system. Annotate dates, times, witnesses, what you heard, license plate numbers, and anything else that might help the person in danger. Keep in mind, however, that many survivors won’t take legal action or work with police until they’re ready to do so
  • Create a distration. Try asking for the time or where something is located in the store. Ask the survivor where they got their outfit. Ask if they have seen your friend who may have left without you. This may cause the abuser to disengage or, ideally, leave. If the opportunity presents itself to separate the abuser and survivor, be there to listen and offer whatever help you can
  • If you can talk to the survivor alone, give them support but respect their agency. “I’m concerned about what I just saw. Do you need help?” can go a long way for someone experiencing domestic violence. Such a phrase lets them know that people care about them, that the behavior is unacceptable (and not their fault), and that there’s hope. It’s important that they know that they don’t deserve to be treated in such a way. At this point, you can tell them about resources like Operation Safe Escape or the National Domestic Violence Hotline

Remember that many survivors of domestic violence need time to plan and prepare their escape, and trying to compel them to leave right away may actually do more harm than good. On average, a survivor of domestic violence makes seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship, which can be complicated by custody and financial issues. So even if the person is ready to leave in that moment, giving support once or finding a way to offer continuing support may help empower them when they need it.

It may be difficult to accept if someone isn’t ready to leave when the danger seems apparent. Try to remember that the survivor has likely had their autonomy stripped away by the abuser, and they may not have been able to make their own choices on many things. Telling them what to do or trying to force them to make a decision on the spot can inadvertently retraumatize the person you’re trying to help. Instead, respect their choice and remember that they have a much better idea of what’s safe and what they’re able to do in that moment than you do. And understand that some people may not ever leave an abusive relationship for one reason or another. You can share your concerns, give support, tell them you care, help them develop a safety plan, and give them resources, but you can’t make their choices for them.

gaslighting abstract image

What is gaslighting?

In 1938, Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight hit the stage in London. It was the story of Bella Manningham and her husband, Jack, who was convinced that there were jewels hidden in the apartment above theirs. Every night, he would sneak into the apartment to search for them, and Bella was certain that something was wrong. But Jack would lie to her, telling her that she was imagining the footsteps she heard and doing other things to make her doubt her sanity. As in the title of the play (and later, movie), when the gas-fueled lights would dim, Jack would tell Bella that he was imagining that as well. Over time, Bella began to second-guess everything she experienced, which took its toll on her physical and mental health.

In the movie and the play, Jack is eventually caught in the act and Bella is vindicated. But outside the Theatre, gaslighting is a common form of manipulation in toxic, abusive relationships. Being aware of gaslighting- knowing what it looks like and what forms it can take- can help you avoid this form of emotional abuse.

Gaslighting makes you question yourself, your reality, and your sanity

Gaslighting relies on, and misuses, trust and influence over the target. The abuser lie about events that actually happened in an effort to make the person question their own judgement, memory, and mental health. This allows the abuser to further manipulate their victim into giving them what they want. If you feel that you’re to blame for everything, that you’re being overly-sensitive, that you can’t trust your memories or perceptions, think about what the people around you are saying to you.

Gaslighting and narcissism are closely related

People who engage in this sort of abusive behavior are often pathological liars with narcissistic tendencies. They will often lie about other things, even when they don’t benefit from it. It can be frustrating for the target of their lies, because even when they’re called out or confronted with proof they’re likely to double down and refuse to change their story. They may say things like “you’re making things up again,” “that never happened,” or “you’re crazy.” Eventually, their apparent sincerity might be enough to make you doubt your own experiences. Abusers will also use seemingly kind and loving words to avoid the conversation, saying what they think you want to hear without actually meaning them. This is evident when the behavior is inevitably repeated.

When confronted about their gaslighting, abusers will often change the subject by asking a question or focusing on minor details while avoiding the actual issue.

Gaslighting goes beyond the interaction with the victim

Abusers will often try to bring unwitting allies into the abuse by discrediting the victim through gossip and other comments. They may engage in a form of “concern trolling” by telling others that you seem unstable or have been behaving oddly. Because abusers are generally very manipulative, other people may be convinced and side with the abuser. Sometimes, the abuser will go back to the victim, telling them that other people are spreading rumors about them without revealing that it was them doing it.

DARVO

“DARVO” is an acronym for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” In order to avoid taking accountability for their behavior, abusers will first deny your observations and attempt to minimize your thoughts and feelings. They may say things like “calm down” or “you’re being oversensitive,” which is intended to downplay or disregard your feelings.

When denying doesn’t work, they will shift into attacking your character or reliability. They will try to convince you that you’re making things up (maybe “without realizing it”, once again an attack on your mental health) or mistaken and that you shouldn’t trust your own perception.

Finally, the abuser will attempt to reverse victim and offender- trying to make themselves look like the hero and you look like the bad guy. They will make every effort to twist your words to make you seem like the cause of their behavior, or insist that you’re treating them unfairly in some way.

Rewriting history

The abuser will tell and retell stories in a way that makes them look better than they did in the actual event. For example, if the abuser pushed you off a curb, they may later retell the story about the time you “fell” off the curb and they tried to catch you. Their intent is to tell it enough times that you doubt your memory of the event. If you correct their version of events, they will grow irate and accuse you of lying or relying on your “faulty memory.”

Signs of gaslighting:

If you are concerned that you might be a victim of gaslighting, or impacted by any other form of abuse, be on the lookout for the following signs:

  • You end up questioning your own judgement, memory, and perception
  • Speaking up or sharing your opinion only makes you feel worse, so it’s easier to stay silent
  • You excuse their behavior and your reactions, telling yourself that it’s not that bad or maybe you’re being “oversensitive”
  • When you second-guess yourself or feel doubt your sanity, it’s their voice you hear in your head
  • You feel vulnerable and insecure around a particular person
  • Your self-esteem has decreased since meeting them
  • You feel that everyone around you is judging you or thinks little of you
  • Your opinion of yourself has suddenly changed; you feel stupid, worthless, and inadequate
  • You’re confused about your experiences and interactions
  • You always feel like they’ve outsmarted you somehow; you end up changing your opinion after speaking with them
  • You apologize. A lot
  • You start second-guessing yourself, even when they’re not around
  • You assume others are disappointed in you and your behavior (and may find that people around you are confused why you would think so)
  • You struggle to make decisions

What to do if you’re the victim of gaslighting:

Gaslighting can result in significant and long-lasting mental health impacts, so it’s important to begin separation and recovery as soon as possible.

Take time to yourself. Put some distance between yourself and the person that’s gaslighting you. This will give you time to work through your feelings without the constant manipulation of the abuser. Remember that gaslighting IS abuse, and it’s often employed with other forms of abuse. While difficult, ending the relationship can be the best way to end the abuse and begin healing.

Consider therapy. Gaslighting can by psychologically traumatizing, especially if it has continued for a length of time. Consider therapy to help work through those emotions and start to undo the damage caused.

Document the evidence. Gaslighting is intended to make the victim question their very reality. You can counter this by keeping a record of  your experiences. Keep a journal or diary, save text messages and emails (screenshot them if possible). Make notations in a calendar. Later, should you start to question yourself, you can look back and see that you were right all along.

Talk to a trusted friend about your experiences and observations. An outside perspective, especially from someone that doesn’t know the abuser, can be very valuable in centering yourself and gaining confidence in your perceptions.

An Open Letter to the Volunteers of Operation Safe Escape

I already sent a version of this letter to each of the volunteers with Operation Safe Escape, but I thought it was worth sharing openly as well:


There’s a few things on my mind, and I’d really like to share them with you. I’d also like to hear your thoughts in return, because I sincerely value what you have to say. Hopefully, this message can do both. I apologize in advance, it’s long. But there’s a lot to talk about.

First, I just wanted to take a moment and thank you for helping Operation Safe Escape become what it is today, and I really hope you’re as proud as I am of what we’ve built. None of it could have happened without people like you making it happen.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when no one was doing what we do now, not the way we do it. There were always helpers like you out there, doing what they could to help others, but for the first time we brought them together and created a way where we could do even more good. The results really speak for themselves:

-We’ve helped nearly 3,000 people escape abuse and stay safe after they do, with a 100% success rate
-We’re founding members of the Coalition Against Stalkerware, and our work through the coalition has had a measurable impact on combatting those malicious tools
-Last year, we supplied in excess of 5 million dollars in security services without cost to any survivors
-Our work has been recognized in the news, through our partners in both the advocacy and the tech/security sectors, in the Harvard Tech Spotlight, and so much more

Those are really just a few of the highlights, too. I could go on for hours talking about the impact we’ve had and the number of people that we’ve helped. But I know you already know this, it’s part of why we keep doing what we do. Because we know that we’re helping people- real human beings, men women and children- feel safe and be safe.

So from the bottom of my heart, thank you for making it possible.

I’d also like to talk a little bit about who we are today and some of the things we’re working on. I think it’s important that all of us know what’s in the works, and maybe even ways you can be a part of it.

Have you seen our mission statement? It’s pretty straightforward- “we’re dedicated to combatting domestic violence and related crimes by providing security and safety tools, resources, and direct assistance to people impacted by domestic violence, their support systems, and institutional organizations such as shelters, safe houses, law enforcement, and social services.” Basically, our mission is to help people survive and escape domestic violence. Maybe we help them directly, maybe we do it by supporting the helpers, but everything we do is working towards that noble goal.

I also have a personal vision that I want to share with you- it’s something that keeps me motivated and I hope it’s the same thing that all of us strive for. I imagine a world where the playing field has been leveled, where abusers no longer believe that they can stay in control by isolating and controlling their victims, and the survivors of abuse all know that someone is on their side; not because they can afford to pay for help, but because we genuinely care. I picture a fundamental change to a legal, regulatory, and enforcement system that is fundamentally broken because it too-often fails to protect the vulnerable population that we serve. I can see a world where people feel safe and empowered to make the choices that are best for them without worrying about how to survive it. I dream of a world that doesn’t need people like us, but until that happens we’re going to be there.

We’re here to make a difference, one that will literally be felt for generations. Maybe we’ll receive accolades and praise for the work we do, or maybe not. Maybe we’ll get recognition, maybe not. But the exponential changes we are privileged to help make is really thanks enough.

That’s who we are. It’s ingrained in our culture. We help because we have the ability do so, and because we sincerely care. It’s been who we are since the beginning, and we’ve never lost sight of that. And we’ve earned the respect of many companies and organizations because of this and our unwavering integrity. We work with people that have had their trust violated by people that were supposed to care about them, but they know they can trust us. It’s trust well-placed.

Finally, I want to make sure to share our values. You may have seen these before, but I think they’re important to read again. They are:
Respect. We will treat our clients, partners, and one another with dignity and the respect they deserve
Professionalism. We will give our clients and partners our very best so they know they’re in good hands
Integrity. We keep our word and will do the right thing legally and morally
Innovation. We will always strive to find cutting-edge solutions to stay ahead of the adversary
Authenticity. As an organization, we are who we say we are. We live our own values hold ourselves accountable
The best people. We recruit and partner with the best processionals in their respective fields (by the way, that’s you)

As an organization, we continue to grow. With so many bright and passionate people, how could we not? Here’s a few things that are in the works.

The first thing that comes to mind is the DV-ISAC (the name’s still pending, so we’ll just call it that for now). If you’re not familiar with the concept, an Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC) is a centralized resource for gathering information on threats, and promoting and sharing information between entities. For example, the financial sector has one to talk about threats to banks and the automotive sector has one to talk about improving security as technology advances. Creating the DV-ISAC will finally allow shelters, safe houses, advocacy groups, and law enforcement to work together in a way they haven’t been able to before.

The OSE TOC/SOC, which will allow us to better provide technical support to partner organizations. Right now, shelters and safe houses (for example) have to make a choice when they need to secure a new wireless router or fix a computer issue. If they lack the technical skillset, they can pay someone to fix it or they can buy food and clothes for the residents. By recruiting volunteers to run the help desk, we can help relieve that burden and help them focus on their client’s well-being.

We’re working on putting together a resource kit for partners, bringing them tools, resources, and information that they desperately need. For example, a security control catalog (based on NIST 800-53) tailored to their mission and written for the largely non-security audience that we’re proud to serve. This will allow organizations to consistently apply security processes without “reinventing the wheel” each and every time.

It’s become clear that we need to improve our volunteer intake process to help our volunteers (the lifeblood of what we do) more quickly get oriented to their role and see how they fit into the overall process. Every single person makes a difference, and I realize I haven’t done enough to highlight that. We’re working on a new orientation program that reduce the uncertainty and confusion right out of the gate. This will include a new orientation handbook, an HR packet, and we’ll be introducing a buddy program to pair new volunteers with those that have been around for a while. We’re also putting together training that better addresses our mission. Because what we do is so unique, our training needs to be as well. Here’s the first, which discusses Trauma Informed Care: [redacted]. I’d really love your thoughts.

Finally, we’re also going to be launching a vicarious trauma program to combat compassion fatigue and new volunteer recognition programs.

There’s much more, we’re always working on something, but you can see that there’s a lot going on!

I really hope this can start a conversation, and I invite you to reach out to me directly at any time if you have any thoughts or ideas on how we can do better, or any questions or concerns. You can email me, catch me on teams, or call me at [redacted]. I just want you to know that your thoughts matter to me, and that -you- matter to me.

If you’re free in a few hours (if you can read this far in a few hours, this message was a bit longer than I thought it would be going in), please jump on the team call. I’d love to have you there and hear your ideas.

Sincerely,

Chris

Chris Cox
Director, Operation Safe Escape

 

FTC bans stalkerware company and CEO from spying on individuals

In a landmark case, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has banned SpyFone and CEO Scott Zuckerman from selling stalkerware apps, which were used to secretly harvest and share data on people’s movements, phone usage, and online activities in a way that wasn’t easily detectable by the victim. In addition to fines, the company is required to delete all stored data and notify users that their phone had been compromised.

The FTC has taken action against stalkerware companies before, but this is the first time they’ve been able to secure a sales ban. Equally important, the requirement to inform users that they have been compromised will expose related forms of abuse and empower survivors to take additional legal action.

 “SpyFone is a brazen brand name for a surveillance business that helped stalkers steal private information,” said Samuel Levine, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The stalkerware was hidden from device owners, but was fully exposed to hackers who exploited the company’s slipshod security. This case is an important reminder that surveillance-based businesses pose a significant threat to our safety and security. We will be aggressive about seeking surveillance bans when companies and their executives egregiously invade our privacy.”

Read the full FTC press release here
Read the legal complaint against SpyFone here

The Starfish Story

You may be familiar with the starfish story, a reminder of how one person can make a difference.

In the story, a man was walking along the beach after a heavy storm. During the storm, debris from the sea washed up on the shore- seaweed, driftwood, and various shells adorned the moist sand. In the distance, along the shoreline, the man saw a child playing in the surf. As he grew closer, he saw that the child was running inland, picking something up from the sand, and then throwing it into the ocean. He would time his run so that he could get as far out as possible without getting overwhelmed by the waves.

As the man got closer, he saw that the ground was littered with countless starfish of various sizes, each drying out in the sun. The boy was collecting as many as he could and throwing them back into the water.

“What are you doing?” the man asked.

Without stopping, the boy replied, “the storm washed all these starfish up, and they’re going to dry out in the sun. I’m throwing them back into the water so they’ll survive.”

The man looked around and noted just how many starfish there were- far too many for a child to collect in time. “But there’s too many,” he said. “You should just go play, you can’t possibly make a difference.”

The boy picked up another starfish and threw it back into the water. “Made a difference to that one.”

It’s a wonderful story, and a great reminder that any of us can make an impact in someone’s life. Often, even a small act can make a huge difference- one that will never be forgotten. But, in a sense, the man had a point. No matter how much the boy’s actions meant to the ones he could save, what of the other starfish?

The man asked the right question, but he didn’t act on it. Imagine what would have happened if he had picked up a starfish and put it back into the ocean; the boy would know he’s not the only one trying to help, and even more could have been returned. What if he had called others to come help, or if people passing by had spent even jut a few minutes helping. The child’s first efforts would have been exponentially increased, and even more could be helped.

Any one of us can make a difference. Working together, we can make a world of difference.

That’s how we see things, anyway. Operation Safe Escape brings people together from different backgrounds and areas of expertise, all with one thing in common: they saw that people needed help and they were willing and able to make a difference. We stand united against all forms of abuse, and will always be there when you need us.