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” 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.

Ride for Awareness 2022 Update

julei and dins ride for awarensss julie mcmahon and din thomasOn January 8th, Julie McMahon’s and Din Thomas’ Ride For Awareness Event will be supporting Operation: Safe Escape! Every year, these to amazing people do a bike ride across Florida for charity. 2022’s January Ride for Awareness will be for OSE! The two-day ride, currently planned to start on January 8th, will take Julie & Din across the state, from Titusville to Clearwater. Operation: Safe Escape will be giving away prizes and swag, and sponsorships are now available and OSE will also have swag available at our upcoming swag store in December!

As always, your generous donations make a huge impact on survivors and their families.

Additionally, if you or someone you know may be interested in becoming a sponsor for this event, we would LOVE to feature you. There are Silver, Gold, and Platinum donation levels for our sponsors, at $100, $250, and $500 levels. If you’re interested in helping sponsor this event, please reach out to Tony Hunt at [email protected] and he will supply more information for Sponsorship.

Here is the link for the event donations:

Thank you all for your continued support!



Join Us for Giving Tuesday

Sometimes, around this time of year, I think of Jane and her children. Jane isn’t her real name, but her story’s real and she’s allowed me to share it.

It seemed to Jane like everyone around her would get excited about the holidays and look forward to the presents, family feasts, and togetherness. But Jane’s household was one of the 10 million in the US alone impacted by domestic violence. Instead of waking up excited to see what was under the Christmas tree, Jane’s children knew to be quiet so no one got hurt. It was no way for Jane or her children to live.

By the time I met her, she had already tried to escape her abusive relationship three other times. But each of those times she either got caught while planning or found after she left. She didn’t know where else to turn. When she came to Operation Safe Escape for help, she was terrified that if she were caught again, it would be disastrous. And she might have been right.

I’m happy to say she escaped with her children and even their pets. She was finally free to start a new life, finally feeling safe. But the story doesn’t end there. Christmas the next year, Jane sent us a message. It was untraceable and private, just like we taught her, and it was saying how it felt to finally have a Christmas that she could enjoy with her children. For the first time, she could wake up with her children and make all the noise they wanted. They could celebrate and play, and no one was afraid. I’m not going to lie, I cried when I read that message.

Jane and her children are just one of the over 3,000 people or families that we’ve been able to work with. It’s what we do- we work with survivors or domestic violence, stalking, harassment, and other forms of abuse to help them escape and stay safe after they do. Our team of safety and security experts work to help give the advantage back to the survivors, helping them make their escape plan, think of the countless things they need to do to avoid getting caught before they can leave, make it out safely, and navigate all the various things they need to do to in order to stay safe and move forward. We also work with domestic violence shelters, safe houses, social workers, and other allies to help them protect themselves and their clients. In all, we provide the equivalent of over $25,000 in assistance and services to each client, all without charging a dime.

But we need help to keep doing it. The computer forensics, advanced security tools, burner phones, secure communications devices, ride credits, and so much more are only available to us because of generous donations and gifts from people like you. Last year, we supplied over 2 million dollars in security services free to survivors and support organizations, and we anticipate an even greater need through the end of this year and into the next. We’re working hard to save lives and help real people escape abuse, even when they have nowhere else to turn.

For this Giving Tuesday, please consider donating to Operation Safe Escape. Every dollar goes directly towards client support and program costs, so you can make a difference today.


julei and dins ride for awarensss julie mcmahon and din thomas

Julie & Din’s Ride for Awareness is coming this January!

julei and dins ride for awarensss julie mcmahon and din thomasHere is some amazing news.

Every year, Julie McMahon and Din Thomas do a bike ride across Florida for charity. 2022’s January Ride for Awareness will be for Operation: Safe Escape!

The two-day ride, currently planned to start on January 8th, will take Julie & Din across the state, from Titusville to Clearwater. Operation: Safe Escape will be giving away prizes and swag, and sponsorships will be available first week of December (next week!) OSE will also have swag available at our upcoming swag store in December!

The People:
Julie McMahon is a Floridian Life Coach and avid advocate for and
Din Thomas is a Coach, a former Pro MMA Fighter and as well as being an ally in our mission.

We will be psting more news here on the website as things progress.

The landing page for the event will be

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.



Chris Cox
Director, Operation Safe Escape


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.

Domestic Violence Knows No Gender, Race, Age, Status

Trigger warning: non-graphic statistics on assault and sexual violence.

Just a few decades ago, domestic violence simply wasn’t something that people talked about. Abuse within the home was considered to be a private family matter, except for when it was portrayed for comedic purposes in television and advertisements. By the 1960s, scholars and social service providers were just starting to recognize that child abuse is a major and pervasive social issue, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Battered Women’s Movement, as it was called at the time, brought domestic violence to the public’s attention. This led to substantial reform, to include new laws and resources such as shelters, hotlines, and advocacy groups.

The first known study showing that man are also victims of abuse was presented in 1975. However, many men are reluctant to report acts of domestic violence for multiple personal and socio-cultural reasons. This has led to under-reporting of acts of intimate partner violence among men.

Domestic violence is not restricted to any single group, and it’s something that we as a society need to talk about. It’s important to recognize that domestic violence can impact anyone, so it feels safe for anyone to get help.

Every minute in the United States, 20 people experience domestic violence. According to a 2017 CDC report, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner at some point in their life. The CDC also notes that 16.9% of women and 8% of men will experience sexual violence (this statistic does not include rape), although the report also concludes that data on sexual violence against men may be under-reported.

Domestic violence also crosses race and ethnicity lines, with 47.5% of American Indian or Alaskan Native women, 45.1% of non-Hispanic Black women, 37.3% of non-Hispanic White women, 34.4% of Hispanic women, and 18.3% of Asian-Pacific Islander women experiencing sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner within their lifetime.

According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, the most common age when intimate partner violence is first experienced by women is age 18-24 (38.6%), followed by age 11-17 (22.4%), age 35-44 (6.8%) and age 45+ (2.5%). For men the most common age is age 18-24 (47.1%), followed by age 25-34 (30.6%), age 11-17 (15.0%), age 35-44 (10.3%) and age 45+ (5.5%).

If we, as a society, are going to effectively combat domestic violence, we need to support everyone impacted by it regardless of demographics. But if we ignore anyone because of our preconceptions and biases, we’ve failed them.

Additional information: Domestic Violence in the 1970s, written by Catherine Jacquet for the National Institute of Health.

Volunteering with Operation Safe Escape

We’re a huge organization of hackers, makers, and security expert that work together to help survivors of stalking, harassment, and domestic violence escape and stay safe after they do.

To do this, we provide forensics and investigation services to help survivors get legal assistance, security education and rescue ops, seminars and direct assistance for support organizations such as domestic violence shelters and safe houses, educational and awareness resources, and so much more. We help survivors navigate the difficult process of planning and effecting their escape, and make sure they have a safe place to go once they do. We help develop policy and strategic advisories for protective programs across the country and integrate our work to support/protect/rescue survivors at every level.

…and we do it all for free.

OSE has successfully helped in over 2000 cases, without cost to any survivors. We need your help to continue doing it. Last year, we supplied over 2 million dollars in security services free to survivors and support organizations and we rely on volunteers and subject matter experts to keep doing it. Please consider helping us by clicking here.

The Stalkerware Threat

On August 15th, 2018, an unsavory character was able to obtain complete and total access to everything on my personal cell phone. In just a few minutes, they were able to download all of my pictures and videos. They could read my text messages and emails, and even send whatever they wanted to while pretending to be me. They tracked my location and secretly activated my microphone and camera. They knew where I was at any given moment and where I would be according to my calendar. They had access to my entire life.

Fortunately, I was that unsavory character. And just as fortunately, I was conducting an experiment to demonstrate how easy it can be to weaponize our own phones against us, how hard it can be to detect for even advanced users, and how disastrous it can be if it happens. Turns out, it’s pretty easy.

In May of 2018, security researchers Andrew Blaich and Michael Flossman with the security firm Lookout, discovered a new malware variant that they dubbed Stealth Mango (for Android) and Tangelo (for IOS). These tools were successfully deployed against military and government targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Iran, and the UAE, and spread largely through phishing and compromised websites. The campaign was ultimately able to exfiltrate over 15GB of data, including text messages, contacts, secret recordings, and sensitive military/government communications. The stolen data even included passport scans, ID cards, whiteboards, and meeting/ceremony pictures that included US service members. In other words, it was a treasure trove of information.

While researching the campaign, the researchers make a remarkable discovery: the same team that developed Stealth Mango and Tangelo also made a commercial variant and the code was almost exactly the same. Commercial variants of mobile spyware are often referred to as “stalkerware” or “spouseware”, named after their common usage.

Once upon a time, sophisticated mobile attacks and intelligence operations were the purview of state actors. This is why the government and military doesn’t allow cell phones into certain areas. But now the threat has grown exponentially and the sheer number of potential attack vectors warrant a careful reconsideration of our policies, training, and defensive posture. Today, the threat includes anyone with $60 or so and easily who can follow basic instructions. There are countless variants of this sort of software commercially available, not to mention the multiple homebrew versions. We can start to get some idea of the sheer scope of the problem by analyzing the data leaded from a self-identified employee of one such company, Flexispy.

Flexispy makes and sells this sort of software. They also sell a “white label” version for other companies to resell under their own brand. According to the information provided to motherboard security researchers Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Joseph Cox, at least 130,000 people had accounts with the service. Among them, a fifth-grade teacher, the president of a distribution company, the vice-president of a bank and many more. And that’s just one company- there’s many others with their own customer base.

Recently, I went to the website of one such company. Their website lists two primary uses for their brand of stalkerware: to “keep your children safe” and to “monitor your employee’s company phone usage”. Insert additional air quotes liberally. It’s important to note that both of those purposes are technically legal, although there would be certain caveats and provisions that would be the responsibility of the buyer to obey.

As an experiment, I contacted this company with a fictitious back story. I told the sales rep that I thought my “girlfriend” was cheating on me, and I wanted to know if their product could help me spy on her. I expressed concern that she would discover it, and mentioned that it’s her phone on her own account. In other words, I was asking if I could use their software to commit a major crime. The rep assured me that it would work perfectly for this purpose. They offered tips on installing it without the victim discovering it, and they even offered a 10% discount code for my first month.

After I purchased a one-month license (I chose not to take advantage of discounts offered for longer durations), it took about two minutes to infect my phone. After that, I merely had to login to my online dashboard on the company’s website to access everything on my now-infected phone. If I intended harm, I would have had ample means to do it then.

The fictitious story is a realistic one, and includes not only an abusive partner but also burglars, hackers, or anyone else that would benefit from this unprecedented level of access when trying to accomplish their goals our counter our own. It’s an inexpensive and low-risk method of intelligence gathering that can be initiated from anywhere in the world, depending on the technical capabilities of the attacker.

As discussed previously, we already restrict cell phones in specific areas. This is a good thing, and that shouldn’t change. But what could your adversary could do if they manage to infect one or more of your employee’s personal or issued cell phones?

We all know that we’re not supposed to talk about work-related topics while we’re out of the office for lunch, but we feel a little bit safer when we’re alone with our trusted coworkers who are working on the same project. We wouldn’t tell our adversary about network issues and vulnerabilities, but we might do a quick internet search on our phone while trying to fix a router configuration issue. And we work hard to protect information about client arrivals, even though a compromised phone can tell far more than an itinerary can. That’s not to mention the blackmail potential for well-placed employees based on their app usage (for example, a married employee using a dating / hookup app), location history, email receipts, and more. The next time you think about the information you want to protect, think about all the items that could potentially be compromised along with your employee’s phones.

As always, real-world risk should inform policy. But when we’re talking about personal devices and non-work hours, there’s only so much that policy can adequately address. We need to provide our users with the resources and information they need to protect themselves under those conditions. For example, these are some important concepts that can be relayed to your employees in order to help protect them and your critical information:

– Free antivirus apps are able to detect many variants of stalkerware, but are often not installed by default. Installing a third-party antivirus app by a reputable company will help prevent infection in the first place
– Periodically scan through your list of installed apps to look for anything you didn’t install or don’t recognize. Many stalkerware apps don’t actually display an icon, so this may not be enough on its own
– If using an android device, look through the settings for “device administrators.” Any apps listed here have more or less full control of your device. For example, the program that I tested required these privileges in order to function. Also, disable the “install from unknown sources” option to help prevent the surreptitious installation of apps
– The least difficult method of installing stalkerware involves physical access to the device. This allows the attacker to ensure that it’s working properly and their tracks are fully removed. Make sure your device is locked and uses a password, PIN, or some other security feature. Other methods of installation seen in the wild include phishing attacks or luring users to a compromised website, referred to as a “watering hole” attack. Make sure these methods are addressed in your training and awareness program
– Some users choose to root or jailbreak their phone in order to increase functionality or unlock certain features. However, this also increases the options available to the attacker. For example, some attacks against iOS devices simply won’t work unless the device is jailbroken. If your users have rooted or jailbroken their devices, make sure they’re aware of the risks

This was only a very broad overview discussing the scope of the problem and basic remediation measures. We have no choice but to meet this emerging threat head on before it’s too late. Much like our adversaries, we have to adapt to a new, increasingly connected environment where the battle lines are blurry at best and ordinary users are on the front lines of a new kind of war.