Cyber stalking: Is your cell phone being used against you?

Thursday, February 7, 2019
Cyber stalking: Is your cell phone being used against you?
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Danielle Leigh reports on programs that can scan phone and other devices for signs of stalking.

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- The New York City Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender Based Violence is expanding a new program in coordination with students at Cornell Tech and NYU Tandon School of Engineering to combat cyber stalking.

The computer program, developed by students and recently put into use at the city's family justice centers, is capable of scanning phones and other mobile devices for signs of stalking.

"It's very hard to look at a phone very quickly and figure out whether you are being stalked," said NYU Tandon's Damon McCoy, who has been involved in the development of this new program.

Cornell Tech PhD students Diana Freed, Sam Havron and Rahul Chatterjee have also been instrumental in the program's development and implementation.

The program detects difficult-to-spot spyware designed to hide inside a victim's phone, as well as problematic settings on common apps like "Find my Friends," "Find my Phone," and the victim's own iCloud account.

Advocates can use the information to help victims change their settings, eliminate the spyware and combat cyber stalking.

Roughly one in three women and one in six men are abused by their partners. And when victims try to leave, they often experience stalking, making it harder than ever to truly escape their attacker.

"I felt trapped. I felt numb," said one victim, whose identity "7 On Your Side Investigates" is keeping private for her safety.

She came to New York City trying to escape an abusive husband out West. "He was going to kill me," she said. "He was going to break my neck. I was frightened, and I realized I'm in trouble."

When the victim left, the abuse didn't end. Her ex-husband began stalking her and threatening her through her mobile devices.

Cyber stalking has become increasingly common as Americans grow more and more dependent on technology.

Domestic violence stalking arrests in New York City have increased roughly 73% since 2013, according to a city report.

"It's something we know is critical to be able to focus on," said Elizabeth Dank, Deputy Commissioner of the Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. "Stalking has a high rate of lethality."

For those who survive the initial abuse, the emotional trauma from cyber stalking often extends well beyond the crime itself.

"Every time I look at my phone I am worried if he is listening to my conversation," said the victim who spoke to Eyewitness News.

She said programs like the one in use at NYC Family Justice Centers are an extremely important tool to help victims discover vulnerabilities they had not considered or detected and take their power back.

"Leaving is scary. But you can leave, because I did it," the victim said.

Anyone who thinks they may be a victim of cyber stalking by an intimate partner can visit one of the city's family justice centers to access to this technology.

Dank recommends victims ask themselves whether anyone might know or have access to critical passwords such as those that control access to an individual's iCloud and other apps, to check the privacy settings on all mobile and electronic devices, and for those with kids, to evaluate whether an abusive partner may have had access to the children's phones.

DO YOU NEED A STORY INVESTIGATED? Jim Hoffer, Danielle Leigh and the 7 On Your Side Investigates team at Eyewitness News want to hear from you! Call our confidential tip line 1-877-TIP-NEWS (847-6397) or fill out the form BELOW. You can also contact Jim and Danielle directly: Jim Hoffer: Email your questions, issues, or story ideas to Facebook: Twitter: @NYCinvestigates Danielle Leigh: Email your questions, issues, or story ideas to Facebook: DanielleLeighJournalist Twitter: @DanielleNLeigh