A Note on Language
In this toolkit, we will sometimes use the word woman/women and feminine pronouns for simplicity and to recognize the significant impact technology-facilitated violence has on women and girls. We recognize that TFGBV also impacts trans, non-binary, and Two-Spirit people. We hope that all people impacted by TFGBV will find these documents useful.
There are many smartphone and tablet applications (apps) available that attempt to address the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. Some of these apps offer general information to raise awareness; some provide screening tools to help identify whether abuse is occurring and provide resources for help; and others are personal safety tools to inform others if you are in danger and need assistance.
Your phones and devices, and the apps on them, offer many opportunities for increasing access to information, resources, and assistance. However, how you use your devices and the information that's accessed or stored on them can also create safety and privacy risks. The following is a checklist of questions and considerations to go through when looking at using any of these available apps.
Does the Perpetrator Have Physical Access to Your Phone?
- If you’re living with or are physically around the abusive person, they could have access to your device to monitor your activities. Consider using a passcode on the device to limit their access. If doing that feels unsafe, consider using an app that allows you to password-protect it so the specific content within or about the app may be less accessible. If the person regularly forces you to give them access to the phone, consider accessing the content on a different device that they won’t have access to such as a work or library computer.
- You can delete or uninstall the app after each use. It is worth noting that there is a difference between removing an app from the home screen and deleting/uninstalling the app. Removing the app from the home screen does not delete the app. The app is still available in your app library. Deleting/uninstalling the app will remove it from your phone completely and erase all its data.
- With the right stalkerware tool, it’s possible for a perpetrator to monitor all device activity without needing constant access to it. Mobile spyware is often installed through physical access to your device or by having your cloud ID and password. Once installed, the person can monitor all activity remotely through their own device. If you think that this is happening, consider using a safer device, meaning one the perpetrator hasn’t had any access to, to look up resources and information.
Do You Think that the Perpetrator Is Monitoring Your Phone Activity, Even Without Having Physical Access to the Phone?
Does the App Do What It Says It Will Do?
- It is critical to test an app before relying on it, especially if you’re interested in using a personal safety app that shares your location information with trusted individuals and/or police in the case of an emergency. When the National Network to End Domestic Violence in the USA tested many of these apps, several failed to send the correct location information or any information at all. Be sure to test out an app before relying on it for immediate safety assistance. If you live in an area with unreliable Internet and data, create a safety plan with alternative ways to reach out for help as apps may not work in these areas.
- Calling 911 or your local emergency number directly may be the quickest and more effective way to get help in an emergency. When calling, be sure to provide as much information about your specific location as possible.
- Some apps provide a list of resources based on your location. If the app isn’t providing resources that are geographically close to you, go to www.sheltersafe.ca for a list of anti-violence programs in your community.
Does the App Ask You for Personally Identifying Information, such as Your Name, Gender, or Other Identifying Characteristics? Are You Required to Provide this Information to Use the App or Is It Optional?
- If you are uncomfortable sharing your personal information and the app isn’t clear on how this information will be used and protected, then either opt out of sharing it or use another app that doesn’t ask for this information.
- Sometimes apps will ask for your postal code or want access to your location to locate resources in your area. If it’s also asking for your age, gender, and other demographic information, that information, in combination with your location, can be very identifying. Only share what you are comfortable sharing.
- Some apps that are meant to help collect evidence of abuse and stalking ask for a lot of identifying information, including descriptions of you and the perpetrator to share with authorities in the case of an emergency. Read the app’s privacy policies (they are either within the app or on the app’s website) to learn about their data collection policies and how your information will be used and shared. Your personal information belongs to you and the decision on when, how, and with whom it is shared should remain with you. A company should only share this information to comply with legal requirements. Keep in mind that the perpetrator’s attorney could send a subpoena to an app company to get information about you, so the company’s policies on how they share your information are important to your privacy.
Does the App Ask You to Always Have Your GPS and Location Settings Turned On?
- Consider the type of app you are using and your primary reason for using it. Many apps will want you to keep your device’s GPS/location on at all times so they can use that information, either to provide a service through the app or to collect usage information for the developers. For privacy and safety reasons, you may want to turn off your device’s GPS and location when you don’t need it on. Perpetrators can attempt to misuse your phone’s location information to track you.
- If you are using an app to find local resources and the app uses your GPS information to look up local programs, turn on your location settings only when you are doing that research. Afterwards, turn off the location feature on your phone to preserve your privacy and safety.
- If you are using a personal safety app that immediately lets someone know that you need assistance, you will want to keep the location settings on since it will be needed to share your most accurate location information. However, if you use this only when you are walking home from work/school, for example, then you can turn on your GPS during those times; otherwise, keep it off.
Does the App Provide Information that Applies to You?
- Many apps provide excellent information or tools for women experiencing violence, such as screening tools to help identify abuse. However, several of these apps are developed for specific populations, such as college students. Although some of the information can be helpful, the resources listed may be specific to only college students. If you are looking for resources and information that are more applicable to you, check out www.sheltersafe.ca.
Does It Look Like the App Was Created by a Reliable Source with Expertise in Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking?
- Many apps have been created by, or in consultation with, anti-violence experts and the information provided is recommended for those experiencing violence. Some apps, however, were not created by organizations with this expertise and may offer information or suggestions that aren’t recommended.
- Always trust your instincts and do what you feel is safest for you. Know that you are not to blame for the abuse that someone else is perpetrating against you. If you see something in an app that you aren’t sure about, discuss it with an anti-violence worker at a local program.
If the App Allows You to Communicate or Share Information with Another Person or Multiple People, Have You Discussed This and Tested It with That Person? Do You Feel That the Communication Method Is a Safe Option for You?
- Many of the apps directed towards women experiencing violence allow for communication with another person or several persons. This is either done through the app itself or through the phone. Consider what is most helpful and safe for you when using these features. For example, some apps allow you to message a trusted individual with information about your safety or with evidence of abuse. If the message is sent through your phone’s default text messaging system and not through the app, the perpetrator could then see this by looking through the sent messages. Think through what will work best for you and your individual safety needs.
- Personal safety apps are meant to enable you to quickly send a message to one or several trusted individuals to let them know you need assistance in an emergency. Be sure to let anyone you list as a trusted individual know what it could mean if they receive a message from you. Test these apps with your friends and family to make sure that the apps work and that your friends and family will recognize what the message will look like. Talk to them about what they can do and the best and fastest way for them to respond.
- Some apps provide tools for collecting and documenting evidence of abuse that can then be shared from the app with a trusted individual or authorities. These apps should allow you to send, download, or print the evidence so you don't have to turn over your whole phone as evidence. Speak with local anti-violence workers and/or police to ensure that the collection of that information and the communication of it to someone in authority is a process that is appropriate and acceptable. You can also discuss other options for documenting the abusive behaviours – something that can help build your case if you choose to go to the police to press charges.
Using downloaded apps that were created for women experiencing violence is just one thing you can do. They can give you more information, resources, and ways to access help. However, they may not prevent or stop the abuse. It is important that, in conjunction with using these apps as a tool to educate yourself or help you manage what’s happening, you also talk to an expert on domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. Apps can be very helpful, but always trust your instincts and feelings.
Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) is part of a continuum of violence that can be both online and in-person. If you or someone you know is experiencing TFGBV, you are not alone. You can use sheltersafe.ca to find a shelter/transition house near you to discuss options and create a safety plan. You don’t need to stay in a shelter to access free, confidential services and support.
Adapted for Canada with permission from NNEDV’s Safety Net project, based on their resource App Safety Considerations for Survivors of Abuse.