As domestic abuse goes digital, shelters turn to counter-surveillance with Tor

Tor Privacy Womens Shelter

Sarah’s abuser gained access to every password she had. He monitored her bank accounts and used her phone to track her location and read her conversations. She endured four years of regular physical and emotional trauma enabled by meticulous digital surveillance and the existing support services, from shelters to police, were almost powerless to help her.

“We wish we could just stop the clock because we need to catch up,” said Risa Mednick, director of the Cambridge domestic violence prevention organization Transition House.

To fight back, Transition House and others turn to the same methods used by intelligence agencies in order to keep their clients safe.

Sarah’s case — one severe enough that using her real name would put both her and the domestic violence prevention community at risk — exemplifies how digital components of abuse stymie social workers more accustomed to dealing with physical and emotional trauma.

Mednick, whose organization worked with Sarah and others in similarly abusive relationships, saw first hand how her own staff struggled to handle casework involving technology. She responded by putting out a query for assistance.

Last fall the Tor Project — a nonprofit that builds anonymous Web browsing and communication tools — answered Mednick’s query. Since then, the two groups have been working to develop a resource that will provide staff and advocates with the base level of technological know-how required to address casework with a digital abuse component.

“Abuses with technology feel like you’re carrying the abuser in your pocket. It’s hard to turn off,” said Kelley Misata, a Tor spokesperson.

The Tor Browser Bundle is free software that works like most ordinary browsers but comes configured to make it harder for individuals to be tracked, obscuring or deleting things like a browser’s history, location, and IP address from both the website the user is browsing as well as erasing traces from the computer the browser is hosted on.

To better understand the dangers and the prevention community’s response to digital abuse, I asked Transition House to connect me with one of their clients, someone who experienced total loss of control over their connected life.

Transition House introduced me to Sarah. She agreed to let her story be used only under the condition of anonymity. The domestic violence prevention community expressed concern at the prospect of reaching out to her abuser or any member of his family, fearing retaliation both toward Sarah and Transition House.

Police reports and sworn affidavits, interviews with Sarah’s family, her best friend, a current and former co-worker, and Transition House all corroborated Sarah’s story.

Becoming A Prisoner

Sarah and her abuser first struck up a relationship after meeting in a recreational soccer league in June of 2008. Things seemed to be going well after a weeklong vacation early on.

But two months in, after a brief breakup, he put her hands around her neck and threatened her life, Sarah said.

He blamed his behavior on a cocktail of drugs — some prescription, some not — to manage the long hours and stress incurred from what he told her was an undercover position at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The man insisted, citing the need to protect his cover, that Sarah grant him access to every aspect of her life: Cell phone, social media, bank accounts, website passwords. Everything.

Feeling she had nothing to hide, Sarah complied. That compliance soon evolved into a complete relinquishing of freedoms.

Each day became the same: She went to work. If she left a building she was to notify him. If she didn’t notify him, he called. When work ended she went home. If she didn’t go home, he called.

“The question I always asked was how does someone end up in that situation?” her best friend said. “And the answer — from having witnessed it — is, gradually.”

That gradual evolution is crucial to understanding abuse, Mednick said.

Abuse works slowly: First abusers often forbid Facebook, then friends of the opposite sex, then friends altogether, then access to transportation, then privacy of any kind. Without noticing, a victim feels suddenly suffocated and intensely vulnerable.

On New Year’s Eve of 2008, Sarah’s partner passed out in their car after an argument over the gratuity on their bar tab. She tried to help him up the stairs but when he came-to he began throwing her, repeatedly shoving her to the ground, and finally kicking her into a wall before passing out again.

“That night I was done with it,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody because if I did, he would know. I felt more alone than I ever felt before. I was a prisoner in my own head because I couldn’t tell anybody what was going on.”

To escape, Sarah took about a hundred ibuprofen in an attempt to end her life.

Troubles with Technology

The first iPhone came out seven years ago. But for the law, those enforcing it, and providers of domestic violence prevention services, contemporary and pervasive use of Web and mobile computing technologies is still a challenge.

Sarah’s case represents a larger trend, one where the lines blur between digital and real-life abuse. Most laws governing abuse and stalking came before the cell phone — and so do most social workers — making response to the trend challenging and slow.

“We’re almost looking at Tor as technological epidemiologists,” Mednick said.

Law enforcement, policy makers, and service providers know very little about that epidemic.

The Cyber Crimes Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office does not keep statistics specifically on cyberstalking. Nor does the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Association. Even the Washington, D.C.-based National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) only managed to dig up a singular table generated by the National Institute of Justice — with data gathered in 2006.

“Unfortunately the most comprehensive statistics kept by the FBI don’t drill down to that level of detail,” said Cindy Southworth of NNEDV in an email.

Today, many abuse cases contain at least one digital facet because abuse is about power and control and most victims are using some form of technology, Southworth said.

Andrew Lewman, the Tor Project’s executive director, understands better than most the challenges facing advocates and social workers in domestic violence prevention roles. Lewman works directly with abuse victims whose partners are in law enforcement or intelligence professions.

“You have a whole separate set of issues,” he said.

The world Lewman works in looks especially grim. He sees abusers posting tips and tricks to online forums, telling others how to achieve masterful levels of surveillance and control.

A screenshot from commercially available tracking software.

For example, one abuser might hack a company’s password database and share the whole thing with others online, Lewman said. Digital communities have sprung up where individuals teach each other how to compromise cell phones to track victim’s whereabouts, listen to conversations in a room, take pictures, and read texts and email so that they can learn about their victim’s behavior on a microscopic level.

Often the language to describe the surveillance is couched in protective terms, such as monitoring a child’s activities or queries posed to check if a partner is cheating. Commercially available software advertises easy tracking of exact locations, call logs, text messages, and more, often in an interface as easy to use as Google Maps.

A screenshot from commercially available tracking software.

And while digital stalkers often know nothing more about technology than the average person, their devotion is intense.

“Most of them quit their jobs and do this full time or they’ve been fired,” Lewman said. “They spend all their time thinking about what they’re going to do next.”

In 2013 more than half of all US adults carried a smartphone according to the Pew Research Center. To turn a device against someone, stalkers need only basic smartphone knowledge and $40. With a hacked phone an abuser can track GPS location and gather exacting details through access to email, text messaging, and other apps.

By contrast, in order to help victims in such a predicament, social workers need a clear line of communication, one insulated from abuser snooping. Establishing that requires learning the basics of encryption — a word many Americans only became familiar with when stories arose around the National Security Agency and Edward Snowden.

“That’s where Tor is useful because most social workers are not tech savvy,” said David Adams. “We don’t even know half the features on our cell phones.”

Adams is co-executive director at Emerge, an organization founded in 1977 that runs education programs for abusers, treating their actions as learned behavior capable of being unlearned.

Emerge is developing a training module with Lewman and Tor that both educates social workers to be more aware of technological aspects of abuse and gives victims tools to “immunize” themselves, Adams said.

That project is still in the early phases. Lewman first needs to understand how to teach social workers to protect themselves before helping others. He thinks of the digital abuse epidemic like a doctor might consider a biological outbreak.

“Step one, do not infect yourself. Step two, do not infect others, especially your co-workers. Step three, help others,” he said.

In the case of digital infections, like any other, skipping those first two steps can quickly turn caretakers into infected liabilities. For domestic violence prevention organizations that means ensuring their communication lines stay uncompromised. And that means establishing a base level of technology education for staff with generally little to no tech chops who might not understand the gravity of clean communication lines until faced with a situation where their own phone or email gets hacked.

While the Tor Project seeks funding to create a program that will give social workers that basic tech education, domestic violence advocates and victims remain in limbo when faced with challenging digital abuses.

An Intervention

The overdose of ibuprofen landed Sarah in the hospital, but she survived. Ultimately she and her partner got back together.

It was 2010, two years into the relationship. Sarah worked at a domestic violence shelter in Greater Boston. Every day she helped people in situations much like her own. She felt like a fraud.

“It was shoved in my face everyday,” she said. “I didn’t tell anybody what was going on.”

Familiar patterns emerged. Sarah went to work and went home, notifying him of her every move. He called if she failed to do so. Slowly other staff at the domestic violence shelter learned about Sarah’s situation.

She worried that he had weapons and the degree of stalking escalated to a point where she feared for her life.

Sarah’s co-workers staged something of an intervention, sending her through a high-risk assessment team. The team acts to triage an abuse case and assess risk — including that of homicide — based on data points from law enforcement and service providers.

The communities of Cambridge, Arlington, and Belmont assembled the team in 2009 bringing together the Middlesex district attorney, law enforcement, and domestic violence community service providers from each town.

Surveillance within an abusive relationship raises a red flag for an increased risk of homicide, according to Adams, who wrote a book on abusive men who murder.

The team assessed a very high risk to Sarah’s situation.

The domestic violence shelter she worked at also worried about the integrity of its organization and the services they provided because Sarah’s abuser knew of the shelter’s location and its business operations from information he gleaned by surveilling her phone and Web accounts.

The team developed an elaborate plan to procure a restraining order and get Sarah on a flight out of state to stay with a trusted friend.

Obtaining a restraining order presented a number of complications, starting when Sarah’s partner drove by the courthouse, watching as she walked up the stairs to file in early fall of 2010.

Filling out the paperwork, she feared he would follow her into the courtroom. She knew him by at least three different names seen on various identifications in his possession. She included all three in the restraining order. In the affidavit she explained the drive by that had just happened and detailed a number of past violent outbursts.

A local detective served Sarah’s abuser the restraining order by phone. He called back that day to acknowledge the order.

Police decided to confiscate Sarah’s smartphone in order to decipher whether it was in fact being used as a surveillance tool. They also decided she would be safer traveling by police cruiser to the airport rather than with a co-worker as the plan originally intended.

Sarah flew from Logan to stay with her best friend. Having complete access to her digital life, her partner knew exactly where she had gone.

“Before she got out here, I went out and bought a baseball bat and a couple cans of mace and prepared for the fact that he might follow her out here,” Sarah’s best friend said.

The friend planned to provide a safe place for her to relax and recover. Her plan and reality didn’t line up.

“It set in pretty quick for me that she wasn’t done with him,” her friend said.

The friend found Google searches for pay phones in the area and assumed Sarah was trying to make contact with her partner. According to Sarah he had emailed her, violating the restraining order. She called to notify the domestic violence shelter of the violation.

In another email, Sarah’s partner said that police had arrested one of his family members under the restraining order because the primary name that she knew him by — and one of the names she inscribed on the paperwork — in fact belonged to the family member.

Feeling guilty for putting the wrong person in jail, Sarah returned to the Boston area to release the family member and address threats he had made against her and her father.

“For me, for my friends, for my family, in that moment going back to him was the safest thing I could do,” Sarah said.


For the domestic violence prevention community, restraining orders are an important tool but they come with a price. Victims and social workers devote hours and receive a token of moderate protection in return. Mednick calls the process an “endurance test” in which returning to the court over and over is not uncommon, often with the abusive person bringing their family and attorney, sitting directly across the aisle from the victim.

“It can feel very scary and you never know what’s going to happen,” Mednick said.

Scared is exactly how Sarah felt summer of 2012. She narrowly avoided being struck by a car when her partner shoved her into oncoming traffic after becoming angry with her for interacting with men at a gay bar.

She filed for a second restraining order later that week, court records show. The processing took far longer than with the first restraining order. From the Friday that she filed throughout the fall, she returned to the courthouse every 10 days in order to keep the order alive, five times in total.

In Massachusetts service of a restraining order must occur in person unless a judge grants special circumstance allowing another manner of delivery. For more than a month police tried serving Sarah’s partner to no avail. Eventually a judge granted the restraining order by allowing police to serve him via voicemail but warned Sarah that the order might not hold up should the defendant decide to fight it in court.

According to the affidavit she wrote and later recounted during an interview, it was only with the help of five strangers that Sarah managed to get in her car and leave the night he pushed her into oncoming traffic. In the affidavit she also revealed his supposed FBI cover and said she had not returned home after the incident for fear of seeing him.

Since obtaining that second restraining order Sarah has neither seen nor spoken to her former partner, except on one occasion when he saw her driving on U.S. I-93 and attempted to run her into a guardrail before exiting the highway.


When Transition House staff learned about the courthouse drive by, the gravity of technological abuse struck.

“He knew to drive by a court that was completely in a different town,” said one staff member with detailed knowledge of Sarah’s case.

Since then, response to digital abuse at some organizations has improved. Staff members ask questions to determine if cases contain a digital component earlier in the screening process. They are wary of client cell phones and compromised communication channels. If they feel a victim carries a bugged phone they replace it. If the abuse is happening across social media they encourage not using the platform in question.

However digital abuse often remains hidden until well after a victim’s first contact with the organization, making it vulnerable to compromised communication lines, Mednick said.

In more severe cases the Tor Project gets involved and introduces some of their anonymizing tools to provide an added layer of security.

Meanwhile Sarah’s restraining order remains precarious in the eyes of the law because it was served over voicemail. A court advocate told Sarah that her abuser was likely ducking the restraining order because there were warrants out for his arrest, she said. But when contacted the Middlesex County Clerk’s office said it found no warrants, at least under the name Sarah believed truly belonged to him.

Over the years Sarah’s partner came to know and hold power over almost every detail of her life. In all she endured two lost jobs and two restraining orders. She was coerced into pregnancy and then miscarried. She survived monthly physical violence, persistent emotional trauma, and a suicide attempt.

More than a year out of the relationship — and lots of therapy later — Sarah said she still feels like she spent four years of her life with a person she knew absolutely nothing about. She eventually realized that he was likely not undercover FBI, but instead an abusive, married man with a drug habit.

“I had no idea who he was,” Sarah said.

Six months after I first met with Sarah, she reflected on the struggle that started in June, 2008.

“No body is going to believe all of this stuff,” Sarah said. “Even now I have a lot of shame. I have a lot of blaming myself.”

After obtaining the second restraining order she often called asking her best friend if particular social interactions were normal. Behavior for which she received punishment for so long, her best friend said.

“The entire thing was just such a surreal experience,” said Sarah’s friend. “It’s a process, healing — a long, never-ending process.”

Sarah now works two jobs and is considering a career change. She goes out with friends at night and runs during the day. All things that she could not or would not do for a very long time.

“I started playing soccer again,” Sarah said.

Typing image licensed from Shutterstock.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at [email protected].
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