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How to break up with your abusive ex’s tech – CNET

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This article discusses domestic violence. CNET would like to remind readers that browsing histories, including this story, can be monitored and are impossible to completely clear. If you need help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

From GPS tracking to account security, managing technology after a dangerous breakup can be a scary and frustrating exercise in digital survival. Genuine stalkerware needs to be handled carefully if you’re concerned that gaining digital independence from an abusive person could anger them and endanger you further. Even if you haven’t found stalkerware on your phone or computer, you should consider taking the following steps to improve your personal safety if you are concerned an abusive ex may have access to your online life.

We urge caution here. There could be risks associated with revoking an abusive person’s access to your accounts and devices. You should consult with domestic violence services if you think you’re in danger. In their digital safety checklist, the Coalition Against Stalkerware advises caution when removing suspected stalkerware. 

“If you delete stalkerware, whoever installed it would know that it’s been disabled. So it’s important to understand that before taking any action, and to have a safety plan ready. One of the points of this plan may be: contact organizations working with victims of domestic violence,” the coalition writes.

Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity policy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, helps people who are concerned a partner or ex might be accessing their data. “The good news when it comes to account security is, we have things that we can tell people to do,” she said at a presentation on her work in January.

Also be aware that anyone with access to your web history could later be able to see that you’ve viewed this page, so consider clearing your internet history before logging off. If you need a hand, check out our explainer on how to delete your Google history.

Disable GPS tracking 

If you share a joint phone account with your ex, you’ll need to talk with your service provider about removing your ex from the account or, at the very least, ensuring your ex doesn’t have access to network-provided location tracking services such as those available with the AT&T FamilyMap service. 

The service only works for mobile phone lines on the same billing account or that have the Secure Family Companion app installed and paired with the parent device, according to a spokesperson from AT&T.

“Any device that is part of the group receives a monthly reminder text message that they have the service, which includes the parent device phone number,” the spokesperson said. “Uninstalling the companion app and turning off location sharing on their device would prevent their location from appearing in the parent app.”

The Find My app (formerly Find My Friends) from Apple can also be used to stalk family members. If you have this app installed, you might want to uninstall or disable it to prevent location data from getting out further. If you set up Family Sharing and use Location Sharing, your family members automatically appear in the People tab.

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To see people with whom you are sharing your location, go to the People tab in Find My. When someone shares their location with you, you can choose to share your location back or not. 

There are two ways to stop sharing your location. You can stop sharing with everyone by turning off Share My Location in the Me tab. Or you can stop sharing your location with a particular person by selecting Stop Sharing My Location in the People tab. 

If you stop sharing your location in Find My, the person won’t receive a notification, but they won’t be able to see you on their list of friends. If you re-enable sharing, they get a notification that you’ve started sharing your location with them.

Notably, if you delete an iMessage conversation you’ve had with someone who you’ve also shared your location with, iMessage will also prompt you with a dialogue box asking if you would like to stop sharing your location. 

You can also review CNET’s list of common tracking apps and features and check whether any have been installed or activated on your phone. 

If you still have access to all of your social media accounts, avoid checking into businesses or locations you visit while using those apps. Don’t add your location to your tweets or your Facebook and Instagram posts when prompted. Make sure your phone’s GPS feature is turned off, and then review your phone’s list of GPS-enabled apps. 

Buy a burner 

If you’re concerned your phone’s security could be compromised, either by stalkerware or an application with intrusive access, it might be best to buy an inexpensive prepaid phone and plan at your local retailer. Commonly known as “burners,” these phones can be used to privately contact domestic violence assistance resources and generally conduct your business outside of an abusive person’s control. 

Read more: Best prepaid phones of 2020

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Police departments and domestic violence services can sometimes provide you with a burner phone, said Brian Franke, a police officer in Longmont, Colorado, who works with people who worry they’re being spied on through their phones. 

Don’t get rid of your normal phone right away, Franke said. That would tip off an abusive partner that they’ve lost access to all your communications. 

“Keep using it as you are, or start gradually paring it down,” he said of your normal phone, “and use this other phone for those communications you don’t want them to know about.”

Create new a new email account

Regardless of whether you’re planning to keep your previous email address, creating a new email address ensures that any immediate mail you need to send or receive can be accessed outside of your ex’s view. If you can, set up the new email address using a burner phone or other device that your ex has never had access to. Consider using public computers at your local library if possible. 

Reset your devices

Shared laptops, tablets, phones or any internet-connected device that your ex has had contact with should be treated as suspect. Rooting out malicious applications on a one-by-one basis might not be a feasible option. In which case, consider creating a backup of important files and photos from the device and then having the device itself completely erased via a factory reset at a local retailer or independent repair shop. 

If you’re concerned about being able to get to a shop, you can still wipe and reset your phone using our instructional guide

Read more: How to back up your iPhone or Android phone

Change account passwords and lockdown privacy settings

If you suspect your ex has access to any of your online accounts, it’s best to reset passwords for all of them. Start with your email address and bank account passwords, then do the same for all social media accounts and any online utility or bill-paying accounts. When resetting passwords, don’t use a previous password from another site. If possible, use a password manager, such as 1Password or LastPass, to create a randomly generated code. 

CNET has looked at password managers in the past, examining Bitwarden and others.  

Read more: The best password manager to use for 2020

After resetting your social media account passwords, check the privacy settings of each account and lock down your profiles. In the case of Facebook, this also means reviewing which other apps have access to your Facebook account. While you’re at it, check out CNET’s list of Facebook-specific privacy steps you can take to keep your account more secure. 

This may also be a good time to ask friends, family and co-workers not to tag you in any social media posts for a while, especially if those posts include information that could potentially identify your whereabouts or activity. While you’re at it, ask them not to give information about you to your ex in general. Many abusive partners will try to get information out of other people in their target’s life, the EFF’s Galperin said.

Read more: Google keeps a frightening amount of data on you. Here’s how to find and delete it.

Don’t forget to check accounts associated with your phone or smart speaker, like your Google ID, Apple ID or Amazon. These accounts typically show you a history of which devices have logged into the accounts and from what location. You can revoke access to devices you don’t recognize.

To check whether your ex is looking at your Google account, sign in to your Gmail account and scroll to the bottom of the page. You’ll see a line that says “Last account activity.” Click Details to see when, how and where your account is being used. If you suspect any unsafe activity, click on the button labeled Sign out of all other Gmail web sessions

Check our guides for instructions on locking down your Amazon account. Then, do the same for your Apple account, if you use an iPhone ($699 at Apple) or Mac.

Boost your login security

On each of the accounts mentioned above — and on most social media and online service accounts — you should have the option to enable two-factor authentication, which is commonly referred to as 2FA. As the name suggests, two-factor authentication requires two ways of proving your identity, which can help keep an ex out even if he or she somehow obtains your new passwords.

Most 2FA features offer the option of a login coupled with a verification text sent to your phone. In the case of locking your ex out of your device altogether, consider enabling biometric authentication features such as iris scan or fingerprint reader options on your phone. 

Another option is to get a physical hardware security key for your device. Increasingly popular, the USB-based device functions for your phone or laptop much the same as a house key does for your front door. 

Read more: New phone? Setting up Google Authenticator is easier than ever. Here’s how.

Don’t forget Alexa 

If you have smart speakers in your home which are capable of unlocking doors or giving information using voice commands, change your PIN codes and passwords for these immediately and be sure that your ex’s phone no longer has permission to connect with the smart devices. 

Unfortunately, you may have to repeat this process for each different smart device you have in your home if you’re looking to ensure total lockdown. 

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