Abusers often misuse technology as a way to control, monitor, and harass victims. You might have a hunch that technology has been misused because the abuser just “knows too much” about what you are doing on your computer or phone or shows up wherever you go. This section addresses all forms of abuse using technology as well as how you can use the laws and courts to protect yourself.
Abuse Using Technology
Abuse Using Technology
Ways Abusers Misuse Technology
This section includes various ways that an abuser can commit abuse using technology, including cyberstalking, sexting, electronic surveillance, abuse involving nude/sexual images, impersonation, online harassment, and more.
Abuse Involving Cyber-surveillance/Connected Devices
Cyber-surveillance involves the use of connected to devices to monitor places or people. Connected technology could be used for your own convenience, but an abuser could misuse the same technology to maintain power and control over you.
What is cyber-surveillance?
Cyber-surveillance is when a person uses “smart” or “connected” devices that communicate through a data network to monitor people or places. This type of connected technology has also been called the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Devices used for cyber-surveillance are generally connected to each other and to a device or app that can control them. For example, you may have a television connected to the Internet that you can control from an app on your cell phone or tablet or appliances like coffee machines can be connected to a network and controlled remotely with another device (such as your computer or phone). Devices may be connected through a home network, the Internet and WiFi, Bluetooth, or other means. These devices and systems offer tools you can use to increase your own safety and convenience.
However, cyber-surveillance also allows connected devices to play a role in how people and places are monitored. An abuser could use his/her computer (or other device that is connected to the Internet, such as a phone or tablet) to hack into your devices. Then, an abuser may misuse these devices and the systems that control them to monitor, harass, threaten, or harm you.
How is cyber-surveillance used?
Cyber-surveillance can be used in a variety of helpful ways, and you may choose to use cyber-surveillance to monitor and control your own property or add certain conveniences to your life. Some examples of connected devices that allow you to use cyber-surveillance include:
- smart electrical outlets (with lights or other devices plugged into them);
- entertainment systems (stereo, TV, etc.);
- security cameras and motion detectors;
- smoke detectors;
- video doorbells;
- smart locks;
- appliances (refrigerator, vacuum, etc.);
- nanny cameras;
- pet feeders, pet cameras, pet toys and trackers (GPS systems that allow you to know where your pets are);
- children’s toys and trackers.
These types of devices may be connected to the Internet or a data network so that you control them remotely through apps or they may be programmed to turn on and off at certain pre-set times. Other devices may be voice-controlled and complete certain activities on command.
You are using cyber-surveillance technology (in a way that may be helpful, make you feel safer, or for your own benefit) when you do things like:
- control devices in your home remotely (such as the television, air conditioning, heating system, or the alarm system);
- install a security camera feature at your home that you can monitor remotely (i.e., using the Internet to observe your own property);
- use devices that allow you to control your car’s GPS device, locking mechanism, sound system, or allow you to start your car remotely; or
- use fitness watches to connect to a network to monitor your own movement and goals.
How might an abuser misuse cyber-surveillance?
An abuser could misuse connected devices to monitor, harass, isolate and otherwise harm you. Connected devices and cyber-surveillance technology can track who is in your home and what they are doing. Devices that allow you to use cyber-surveillance are typically connected to the Internet or another data network, so an abuser could hack into these system (with a computer or other technology connected to the network) and control your devices or information. An abuser who uses your technology to track your actions may do so secretly, or more obviously as a way to control your behavior. An abuser may use cyber-surveillance technology to:
- take pictures or video of you;
- keep logs of your activity (that can be gained from a fitness tracker or your car’s GPS and reveal if you left the home to seek court protection, for example);
- eavesdrop on you; and
- gain access to your email or other accounts linked to the connected devices.
An abuser could also misuse technology that allows you to control your home in a way that causes you distress. The abuser could harass you by turning lights and appliances on or off in your home, adjusting the temperature to uncomfortable levels, playing unwanted music or adjusting the volume, triggering home invasion and smoke alarms, and locking or unlocking doors. Such behavior could make you feel uncomfortable, scared, out of control of your surroundings, or make you feel confused or unstable.
Additionally, an abuser could misuse technology that controls your home to isolate you from others by threatening visitors and blocking physical access. For example, an abuser could remotely control the smart locks on your home, limiting your ability to leave the house or to return to it. A video doorbell could be used not only to monitor who comes to the door, but to harass them remotely or, in combination with a smart lock, prevent them from entering the house. You can also see a short video on this topic.
Finally, abusers could even do more dangerous things when a car is connected and able to be controlled through the Internet. For example, many newer cars have small computers installed in them that allow someone to control many of the cars features remotely, such as heated seats, emergency braking, or remote steering technology. An abuser could hack into the car’s system and gain access to this computer to control the speed or brakes of your car, putting you in serious danger.
Note: Without access to your passwords, gaining control over your connected devices may require a more advanced level of knowledge about technology than most people have. However, other information could be easier for a non-tech-savvy abuser to access. When devices are connected through a data network or the Internet, for example, an abuser may be able to log into (or hack into) that system to get information about how those devices were used, such as when you come and go from your home or where you drive your car.
What laws protect me from cyber-surveillance?
Many of the laws that apply to electronic surveillance could apply to acts of cyber-surveillance as well, depending on how the abuser is using the connected devices to abuse you and the exact language of the laws in your state. For example, if the abuser is accessing devices on your network to listen in on your conversations, perhaps eavesdropping laws may apply. Additionally, an abuser who is watching you or recording you through your devices, may be violating invasion of privacy or voyeurism laws in your state.
Other laws could also apply to a situation where an abuser is unauthorized to access your connected devices, such as certain computer crimes laws. Additionally, if the abuser is accessing your devices to engage in a course of conduct that causes you distress or fear, then harassment or stalking laws could protect you from the abuser’s behavior.
What can I do to make sure I am protected if I use connected devices?
In order to try to use connected devices and cyber-surveillance safely, it can be helpful to know exactly how your devices connect to one another, what information is available remotely, and what security and privacy features exist for your technology. For instance, if a device begins operating in a way that you know you are not controlling, you may want to disconnect that device and/or remove it from the network to stop the activity. You may be able to learn more about how to disconnect or remove the device by reading the device’s manual or speaking to a customer service representative.
If you suspect that a device is being misused, you can begin to document the incidents. A technology abuse log is one way to document each occurrence. These logs can be helpful in revealing patterns, determining next steps, and may potentially be useful in building a case if you decide to involve the legal system.
You may also consider safety planning with a domestic violence advocate who has some understanding of technology abuse. If you are already working with an advocate who does not have specialized knowledge of technology misuse, the advocate can get assistance from our Safety Net Project to help make sure you are safe when using your technology.
Abuse Involving Texts, Photos, and Videos (non-consensual image sharing/"revenge porn")
For many people, sending and receiving texts, photos and videos is an important way to communicate with family and friends. However, sending texts, photos, or videos of a sexual nature can have unintended consequences, especially in a situation where there is an imbalance of power and someone feels pressured or forced into taking or sending sexual images or texts.
Abuse Involving Sexting
What is “sexting?”
Sexting is a term used to describe the act of sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages, photographs or videos, mainly through a mobile device. These images can be sent through a regular text message or through a mobile texting app. As texting apps on mobile devices have become more popular and create ways that users can “hide” or anonymize their texting activity, sexting has also increased in popularity.
There is always a risk that a “sext” could be shared or distributed with additional people electronically without your consent. Once a photograph or video is sent, the image is out of your control and could be shared by the other person. However, the act of voluntarily sharing sexually explicit photographs or videos with someone does not give the receiver your permission to post or share those images. Sharing personal information and images of someone else without his/her knowledge or consent is not okay and in many states can be illegal. You can learn more about this on our Abuse Involving Nude/ Sexual Images (photos/videos) page.
It’s important to think about whether you are truly comfortable with sharing sexual or explicit images with the recipient and whether you fully trust that s/he will not re-send them to others. If someone is trying to force or pressure you into sending a sexual image, find someone (a local service provider, attorney, or law enforcement officer) to discuss your options. You should never be pressured or forced into sending personal images and threatening or forcing you to do so may be illegal. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has a confidential hotline where you can get more information.
Is sexting against the law?
Although sexting between consenting adults may not violate any laws, many state laws that deal with sexting make it clear that sending sexually explicit images to a minor or keeping sexually explicit images of a minor is illegal.
If a minor sends, keeps, or shares sexually explicit photographs of a minor (including himself or herself), there could be criminal consequences for that behavior. Sending, keeping, or sharing sexually explicit images or videos of a minor could result in criminal prosecution under state or federal child pornography laws or sexting laws (if the state has a sexting law that addresses that behavior). Such behavior may also be illegal under state child sexual assault or child abuse laws. Notably, even if the minor sends a sexual image of himself/herself (as opposed to sending pictures of another minor), this behavior can still be illegal and the minor could face legal consequences. You can find a list of states that have criminal sexting laws on cyberbullying.org.
What are some ways an abuser could use sexting?
The act of sexting can be consensual and is not itself a sign of abuse. However, an abuser could use photographs, videos, or messages shared through sexting to maintain power and control over you. For example, the abuser may later threaten to share these images or may actually share them with others. Our Abuse Involving Nude/Sexual Images page has more information about the laws related to the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images.
Additionally, an abuser may blackmail you once s/he gains access to images and messages shared through sexting. An abuser may also pressure or threaten you to continue to send photographs, videos, or messages even if you do not wish to do so.
An abuser could also harass you by sexting you even if you have asked for the communication to stop. For example, an abuser might continue to send you sexual images or videos of himself/herself even if you no longer want to receive that content. If an abuser is harassing you, you may have criminal and civil legal options, such as reporting any criminal behavior to police or filing for a restraining order if eligible.
Abuse Involving Nude/Sexual Images (photos/videos)
How can an abuser use images to harass and harm me?
An abuser could use nude or sexual images of you as a way to gain and keep power and control over you. S/he may do this by:
- sharing intimate images that you sent during your relationship with other people;
- taking photos or videos of you without your consent; or
- threatening to share images as a way to scare/ harass you or as a type of blackmail (to try to get you to do something you don’t want to do, for example).
These actions can be part of a pattern of domestic abuse and/or harassment and there are laws that may protect you from this type of behavior.
What is nonconsensual image sharing (often referred to as “revenge porn” or nonconsensual pornography)?
Nonconsensual image sharing or nonconsensual pornography refers to the sharing or distribution of sexual, intimate, nude, or semi-nude photographs or videos of you without your permission. This is also commonly referred to as “revenge porn,” although that term suggests that a scorned partner has shared an ex-partner’s intimate images as a way to “get back” at the ex-partner, and that is not always the actual motivation. In most instances, the abuser posts or threatens to post the images as a way to gain power and control over his/her partner, to harass the person, or to cause the person distress, humiliation, and shame. Nonconsensual image sharing/pornography can include both images or video that was originally shared with consent in the context of an intimate relationship and those obtained without consent through the use of cell phone cameras, hidden cameras, recording a sexual assault, or hacking of devices.
How can I find websites where my image is posted online?
Even if you know that the abuser has posted an intimate image of you online, you may not know where the abuser has posted your image. Or you may know of one website where the image was posted, but it is also possible that the abuser has posted the image in other places that you do not know about. It will be important to find out if there are any other websites where the abuser may have posted the image if you want your image removed from those websites. You can search for other places a specific image may be posted online by using a reverse image search on Google.
If you are on a computer:
- You can search using an image on these computer browsers: Chrome 5+; Internet Explorer 9+; Safari 5+; Firefox 4+.
- Find the website where your image appears, right-click on the image and select Copy image URL.
- On images.google.com or any images results page, click the camera icon in the search bar.
- Paste the URL into the search box.
If you are on a phone, you can use the Chrome app on an Android phone, iPhone, or iPad:
- Using the Chrome app, find the website where your image appears.
- Press and hold the image. In the box that appears, touch Search Google for this image. You might need to touch the image once to enlarge it on certain devices.
If the image exists in other places, you will see a list of those places in the search results. It will be important to document these in case this is needed for reporting it to the police or the courts. You can take a screenshot of the results and then go to each website and take a screenshot of each one. Each website will have its own take-down policy. Most take-down policies can be found in the “terms of service” language on the website. There may even be specific instructions for you to follow on how to make a request to have your image removed from the website. If there aren’t any instructions or a take-down policy, there may be other ways you can get your images removed.
If someone shares my sexual or personal images, is that a crime? What is the crime commonly called?
In many states, there are laws addressing nonconsensual image sharing/nonconsensual pornography. These laws generally prohibit anyone from taking or distributing intimate photographs or videos without the consent of the person shown in the photo/video, or even threatening to do so. Some state’s nonconsensual image sharing laws also specifically prohibit the stealing of personal content, such as images, from a computer or other technological device (in states where there is not a specific nonconsensual image law, stealing of images or content from a device would fall under another law). The term “sharing” refers to the abuser distributing the content in any way, which could include sending it to others over text message or email, posting it on a website, social networking site, or app, or even printing out the pictures and mailing them to others.
The specific name of this crime and the exact definition varies by state. For example, if a person shares intimate photographs or videos of you, these crimes are often referred to as unlawful dissemination of intimate images or unlawful disclosure of private images. In some states, the threat to share or publish the photos or videos can also be a crime, even if they are never actually shared. If the images are taken without your consent or without your knowledge, these crimes often are called unlawful surveillance or invasion of privacy. If image are stolen from your computer, that behavior may be covered under a data theft or computer crime law in your state. You can look for the actual crimes in your state on our Crimes page by entering your state in the drop-down menu.
Additionally, other laws could apply to the abuser’s behavior, depending on the situation. If the abuser is threatening to share the picture unless you provide him/her with money or property, blackmail or extortion laws may apply. The exact laws that may be able to protect you will be different depending on the language of your state’s laws and the facts of your situation. A lawyer in your state may be able to give you legal advice about which laws in your state apply.
Can I request a restraining order if the abuser has posted an intimate image of me online?
If the abuser made a threat to send intimate pictures of you to another person or to post them online, or if the abuser actually did post intimate pictures, this may be considered a crime. It could come under your state’s harassment crime or there may be a specific crime in your state that prohibits posting intimate images without consent. If this is criminal behavior in your state, you may have the option of reporting that crime to police if you wish to do so.
If there is a crime that covers this behavior in your state, it may also be enough to qualify you for a restraining order. In other states, the legal reasons for getting a restraining order may not cover the threat to reveal sexual images that weren’t yet posted or the posting of images. If you qualify for a restraining order, you may file for one and specifically ask for the order to include a term that states that the abuser cannot post any images of you online and/or that orders the abuser to remove any current images. For information about filing a restraining order in your state and the legal reasons (grounds) for which an order can be granted, please see our Restraining Orders page.
How can I get my images removed if the abuser posted them online?
If you are featured in the photo or video that was posted and you took the photo or video yourself and sent it to the abuser, there may be a legal strategy involving the copyright of your images that you can use to try to get them removed from online. Generally, the person who takes a photo automatically owns the copyright to that image. However, even if the abuser took the photo or video and the copyright belongs to him/her, the person who is featured in the photo or video may also be able to apply to register the copyright to that image under his/her own name. In other words, another way that a person can handle having sexual images of themselves posted without his/her consent is to apply to register the copyright to that image under their own name even before the photo or video is ever posted. Then if the abuser posts the image publicly, you would own the copyright and can file what is called a “takedown notice” (based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998), and request that the relevant Web hosts and search engines remove the image. You can read more about this strategy in an interview with attorney Carrie Goldberg in the New Yorker magazine.
If I send a sexually explicit or intimate image to someone, can that person send it to others?
If you send someone intimate pictures of yourself (often referred to as “sexting” if done over texting or a messaging service), it may be unlawful for that person to post or share those pictures without your permission. The very fact that you sent the pictures to a person does not give that person automatic permission to share the image with anyone or to publish it widely. However, whether or not it is against the law to share those photos will depend on your state’s specific definition of the crimes related to nonconsensual image sharing as well as the age of the person in the image. If someone sends (or possesses) an image of a minor in which the minor is “engaging in sexually explicit conduct,” which could mean that the minor is nude or semi-nude, this may violate federal child pornography laws. You can read more about what types of images may come under federal child pornography laws on the U.S. Department of Justice website.
There may be additional legal protections you can seek if a person shares a sexually explicit or intimate image of you. For example, depending on the laws in your state, you may be eligible for a restraining order or may have other options in civil court that could help you. You may want to speak with a lawyer in your state for legal advice about your specific situation.
Is it a crime for someone to take or record private or intimate video or images of me without my knowledge or consent?
It depends. Taking video or photographs of a person committing sexual acts or in a nude or semi-nude state without his/her consent is usually a criminal act if the pictures or videos are taken in a place where you can reasonably expect to have privacy. For example, if someone places a hidden camera in your bathroom or bedroom and without your knowledge, this is almost always illegal. However, if you are on a nude beach or in a public park and someone takes a video of you nude or doing sexual acts, it may not be illegal to share these images since you likely cannot expect to have privacy in that public place. Again, the specific laws in your state will make it clear what is and is not illegal.
In some states, the same law that prohibits sharing intimate images may also address the act of capturing images without your knowledge or consent. In many states, crimes that cover both behaviors may be called violation of privacy or invasion of privacy. However, in other states, the act of capturing your image without your consent may be covered under a different law, often known as voyeurism or unlawful surveillance. You can look for the actual crimes in your state on our Crimes page by entering your state in the drop-down menu.
How can I prevent the abuser from posting my images on Facebook or Instagram?
Facebook has a project where they provide an emergency option for victims who are fearful that their intimate images may be posted, which you can read more about on the Facebook website. The goal is to prevent an image from being widely shared and to take down images that have already been shared. For this project, Facebook has partnered with non-profit organizations. You can share your image in a safe and secure way to assist Facebook with preventing your image or video from being shared anywhere on Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. You can read more about how to submit an image on Facebook’s website. For more information on how to use the portal to submit images that you fear someone will post and distribute on Facebook, you can reach out to Facebook’s partnering agency, the Cyber Civil Rights Institute (CCRI) or contact the WomensLaw Email Hotline.
Where can I get help if I am the victim of abuse involving sexual or personal images?
A lawyer may be able to give you legal advice and help you determine what laws apply to your situation. You can find legal resources in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page by selecting your state from the drop-down menu. You can also talk to a local domestic or sexual violence program or law enforcement for information on your options and the applicable laws.
Additionally, you may also be able to find help through one of the resources listed on our National Organizations - Posting Nude/Sexual Images Without Consent/”Revenge Porn” page.
Cyberstalking and Online Harassment
While cyberstalking and online harassment can be committed by someone you don’t know, they are most often perpetrated by someone with whom you are familiar. More often than not, cyberstalking or online harassment is committed by a current or former intimate partner and the cyberstalking or online harassment may begin or get worse when you end the relationship.
What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is a term that refers to the misuse of the Internet or other technology to stalk and harass someone. A stalker may contact you by email, social media sites, a messaging app, or through other online spaces/websites. The person may also post messages about you, share your personal information or pictures of you online to harass or scare you. Some stalkers may use technology to find/track your location and to monitor what you do online (or offline).
Even if your state does not have a criminal law specifically against “cyberstalking,” in most states, the act of repeatedly contacting or harassing a person through the Internet or other technology is still considered a crime under the state’s stalking or harassment laws. It’s important to know that even if you were originally okay with the person contacting you, if his/her behavior begins to scare you, it may be considered stalking/cyberstalking. To read your state’s specific laws, you can go to our Crimes page - just enter your state in the drop-down menu and click “Enter.”
What is online harassment?
Online harassment is abusive behavior that happens online (through email, messaging, social media, dating sites, and other platforms). Abusers who commit online harassment often do it to make you feel unsafe, humiliated, scared, or emotionally distressed. They may be trying to publicly embarrass, sexually harass, threaten, dox, bully, offend, or otherwise harass you. In a relationship where domestic violence or stalking is present, the abusive person may do these things to maintain power and control over you. Depending on the abuser’s behavior, there may be laws in your state to protect you.
See the following sections to learn more about online harassment and laws that may protect you. You can also visit our Crimes page in your state to read your state laws related to harassment.
How does online harassment differ from online stalking (cyberstalking)?
Online harassment and online stalking (cyberstalking) resemble each other and often happen at the same time, but the laws covering each behavior may differ.
Cyberstalking laws usually require proof that the abuser’s harassing behaviors made you feel scared that you or someone else was in immediate physical danger, and that the abuser knew his/her actions would make you feel that way. Cyberstalking laws also usually require proof that the abuser engaged in a “course of conduct” (more than one incident).
Online harassment laws may cover a broader degree of abusive behavior. Many online harassment laws can cover just one incident and may not require proof that the abuser knew or should have known his/her actions would cause you fear. However, some online harassment laws may require you to prove that the abuser meant to annoy or alarm you (or should have known his/her actions would annoy or alarm you), and/or that the abuser had “no legitimate purpose” for his/her actions. To see how your state defines harassment, you can read the language of the law on our Crimes page. Note: Not every state has a crime called “harassment,” but on WomensLaw.org we list similar crimes found in each state.
What are some specific ways that an abuser can harass me online? What laws can protect me?
There are many ways an abuser can misuse technology to harass you. Below, we define some of these abusive behaviors and describe the criminal laws that might address them. You may also be eligible for a restraining order in your state if you are a victim of harassment. See the Restraining Orders page in your state to learn more.
Harassment is when someone contacts you or does something to you that makes you feel annoyed or frightened. Some states require that the abuser contact you repeatedly, but some laws cover one harassing incident. Also, some states address harassing behavior in their stalking laws, but other states may also have a separate harassment law. See How does online harassment differ from online stalking (cyberstalking)? to learn how online harassment differs from online stalking. To read the specific language of laws that apply to harassment in your state, go to our Crimes page. Note: Not every state has a crime called “harassment,” but on WomensLaw.org we list similar crimes found in each state.
A threat is when someone has communicated (through words or images) that they plan to cause you or someone else harm, or that they plan to commit a crime against you or someone else. Some examples include threats to kill, physically or sexually assault, or kidnap you or your child. Threats can also include threatening to commit suicide. Many states’ criminal threat laws don’t specifically talk about the use of technology, they just require that the threat be communicated in some way (which could include in person, by phone, or using text messages, email, messaging apps, or social media). Online threats don’t necessarily have to include words – a picture posted on your Facebook page of the abuser holding a gun could be considered a threat.
Doxing is when someone searches for and publishes your private/identifying information online in an effort to scare, humiliate, physically harm, or blackmail you (among other reasons). The information they post could include your name, address, phone number, email address, photos, finances, or your family members’ names, among other things. An abuser may already know this information about you or s/he might look for your information online through search engines or social media sites. Abusers may also get information about you by hacking into devices or accounts. Sometimes they may even reach out to your friends or family members pretending to be you or a friend of yours so that they can get more information about you. The abusive person may publish your personal information online in an effort to scare, humiliate, physically harm, or blackmail you (among other reasons).
Doxing is a common tactic of online harassers, and an abuser may use the information s/he learns through doxing to pretend to be you and ask for others to harass or assault you. See our Impersonation page to learn more about this form of abuse. There may not be a law in your state that specifically identifies doxing as a crime, but this behavior may fall under your state’s stalking, harassment, or criminal threat laws.
Cyberbullying is unwanted and often aggressive behavior targeted at a specific person that takes place through the use of technology devices and electronic communication methods. A cyberbully may use a phone to repeatedly send offensive, insulting, hurtful or threatening text messages to you, or may use social media to post rumors or share personal information about you. Not all states have cyberbullying laws, and many of the states that do have them specify that they only apply to students or minors (since “bullying” typically takes place among children and teens). Additionally, not all states criminalize cyberbullying but instead may require that schools have policies in place to address all forms of bullying among students. If you are experiencing cyberbullying and your state doesn’t have a cyberbullying law, it’s possible that the abuser’s behavior is prohibited under your state’s stalking or harassment laws (additionally, even if your state does have a cyberbullying law, your state’s stalking or harassment laws may also protect you).
If you’re a student experiencing online abuse by someone who you are or were dating and your state’s domestic abuse, stalking, or harassment laws don’t cover the specific abuse you’re experiencing, you may want to see if your state has a cyberbullying law that could apply. For example, if an abuser is sharing an intimate image of you without your consent and your state doesn’t have a sexting or nonconsensual image sharing law, you can check to see if your state has a cyberbullying law or policy that bans the behavior.
You can find cyberbullying laws on the Cyberbullying Research Center’s website and at stopbullying.gov.
If you are the victim of online harassment, it is generally a good idea to keep track of any contact a harasser has with you. You can find more information about documenting technology abuse on our Documenting/Saving Evidence page. You may also be able to change the settings of your online profiles to prohibit an abuser from using certain threatening phrases or words. You can learn more about these protections on Safety Net’s Tech Safety blog. You can also find legal resources in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page.
Can I get a restraining order based on cyberstalking or online harassment?
In many states, you can file for a restraining order against anyone who has stalked or harassed you, even if you do not have a specific relationship with that person. In addition, most states include stalking as a reason to get a domestic violence restraining order (and some include harassment). Please check the Restraining Orders page for your state to find out what types of restraining orders there are in your state and which one may apply to your situation.
Even if your state does not have a specific restraining order for stalking or harassment and you do not qualify for a domestic violence restraining order, you may be able to get one from the criminal court if the stalker/harasser is arrested. Since stalking is a crime (and in some states, harassment is too), the police may arrest someone who has been stalking or harassing you. Generally, it is a good idea to keep track of any contact a stalker/harasser has with you. You may want to keep track of any phone calls, drive-bys, text messages, voicemails, emails (print out what you can, with headers including date and time if possible), or anything the stalker/harasser does that harasses you or makes you afraid. The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center has a stalking incident log that you may wish you use to record this information. Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has a sample cyberstalking incident log with tips on how to best document evidence of technology abuse.
With or without a restraining order, there are things you can do to try to stay safe. Go to our Safety Tips for Stalking Victims page for more information.
Where can I get additional information?
Here are a couple of resources you may want to look into:
- Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, specializes in technology safety. Their Tech Safety blog has additional information and resources for victims of technology abuse.
- The Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center also has information on their website about stalking, as well as safety tips and resources.
An abuser may use technology to record your conversations and actions to maintain power and control over you. Recording laws deal with whether you or the abuser can legally record conversations or actions and whether those recordings can later be used in court.
How can an abuser misuse recording technology?
In a relationship where there is domestic violence or stalking, an abuser may record your conversations or take video of your actions to get more information about your personal life and to keep you from having any privacy in order to keep power and control over you, learn about your schedule, and possibly use the information against you later to blackmail you depending on what is recorded. You can learn more about how an abuser could misuse recording technology and recorded information again you in our Electronic Surveillance page. Note: The content below will specifically cover recording your conversation or your image.
Is recording a conversation with another person illegal?
Generally, whether recording a conversation is illegal will depend on your state’s laws. Some states allow recording of telephone calls and in-person conversations with the consent of at least one of the parties. Therefore, the law may allow you (as a part of the conversation) to solely give consent to the recording. Similarly, if the abuser records a conversation that s/he is a part of, then his/her consent may be sufficient to allow him/her to legally record the conversation. State laws that only require one party to consent to the recording are often called “one-party consent” recording laws.
Other states require that all parties who are a part of the conversation give consent to a recording before recording a conversation is considered legal. These recording laws would apply regardless of which party is recording the conversation. In other words, if you are recording a conversation to gather evidence of threats or abuse, but your state requires that all parties in the conversation consent and the abuser has not consented to the recording, your actions could be illegal.
It can be helpful to know your state’s recording laws to figure out if the abuser did something illegal by recording a conversation. It may also be helpful for you to know whether the law allows you to record a conversation where the abuser threatens or abuses you (if you are trying to keep a record of the abuse). You can check your state’s Crimes page or Statutes page to look for the laws in your state and our Finding a Lawyer page to look for a lawyer who can give you legal advice. You can also consult the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press Recording Guide for state-by-state information on recording laws.
Is taking a video or photograph of another person illegal?
Generally, whether taking video or a photograph of another person without his/her consent or knowledge is legal or illegal may depend on whether the subject of the video or photograph had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place where video or photograph was taken. A “reasonable expectation of privacy” generally exists if you are in a place where an average person would expect to not be seen or spied on.1 For example, if you are in a public place, you may not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, but if you are in your bedroom or a public restroom stall you generally would.
1 See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) (noting that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.”)
Can recordings be used in court?
Generally, any evidence gathered in an illegal way cannot be entered into the record in a court proceeding. If you have recordings that were legally obtained, then whether you can use that evidence in court will depend on your state’s rules of evidence. Generally, you may have to prove the authenticity (validity/truthfulness) of a recording to the judge and prove whose voices or images are on the recording. Then the judge will also have to decide whether it is appropriate under the state’s rules of evidence to admit those specific pieces of recorded evidence.
Another possible challenge with getting a recording admitted into evidence during a court hearing is that the judge may decide that your recording is considered hearsay (an inadmissible out-of-court statement). There are several exceptions to the hearsay rule, which again will depend on your situation, your state’s laws, and the rules of evidence that control court proceedings in your state. It may be helpful to speak with a lawyer in your state to get legal advice about how to deal with any recorded evidence that you think is important to your case (or how to object to recorded evidence that the abuser tries to admit into evidence). It may also be helpful to consider other ways to document incidents of abuse to prepare for a court hearing or testimony, such as using a “stalking log.”
What laws address recorded conversations or videos?
Your state should have a specific recording, eavesdropping, or wiretap law that addresses whether all parties must consent to a recording or if only one party’s consent is sufficient for you (or the abuser) to legally record a conversation. For videos, states may have specific voyeurism or surveillance laws that apply to recording a video or taking a photograph of someone without his/her permission.
Although each state’s law may not have the same name, you can check your state’s Statutes page and your state’s Crimes page to see if we list a statute that is relevant to your situation. You can also check with a lawyer in your state and use the information and resources we include on our Electronic Surveillance page to learn more about your state’s laws.
What is spoofing?
Spoofing is a term that means masking or hiding one’s actual phone number so that another phone number (chosen by the user) shows up on the recipient’s caller ID. Abusers may use spoofing to pretend that they are someone else so that you will pick up the phone (especially if you wouldn’t pick up a call from the abuser’s number).
Is spoofing illegal?
Maybe. Most states do not have laws that specifically address spoofing technology. However, it can be illegal to use caller ID spoofing to defraud someone or to cause harm. It may also be illegal to use someone else’s identity to defraud or to impersonate certain public officials. See What laws protect me from impersonation? for more information on some criminal laws that could apply to spoofing.
What are some ways an abuser could use spoofing technology?
An abuser could use spoofing to make you believe you are receiving a telephone call from a family member or from an advocate or lawyer. Another way that an abuser can use spoofing for impersonation is that s/he can call others and enter your phone number as the “caller.” The abuser may pretend to be you to cause problems with your personal or professional life or to create a false record of you calling him/her multiple times in order to report you to the police or courts for harassment. If an abuser does this, however, it can easily be proven that you did not make the phone calls since they will not appear on your phone bill in your outgoing calls. Some of these spoofing services allow the users to not only change the caller ID number but to also alter their voice so it appears to come from another gender or another person, to add background noise, and/or to record the call.
How can I prove spoofing in court?
It can be very difficult to prove spoofing in court. It has become so easy for people to get false phone numbers and there are so many companies that provide numbers, that it can be hard for someone to be able to definitively prove spoofing. That being said, while it is difficult to prove that somebody is inappropriately using spoofed telephone numbers, there are some steps that a victim of spoofing can take to help the judge to better understand what is happening. Here are some things you may want to think about:
1. Similar times: Is there anything that you notice about the times of when the abuser calls/texts and the spoofed calls/texts arrive? If someone has received calls or text messages from the abuser in the past and the spoofed calls/texts are arriving at similar times of the day, it may be helpful to show the judge the prior calls/texts and the spoofed number calls/texts as one hint that they may be from the same person. For example, if the abuser works from 2 pm until midnight and all of the calls/texts (the spoofed calls and the known abuser calls) come in right after midnight or before 2 pm, perhaps that can be an indication that it is the same person. The smaller the timeframe or the more unique the timeframe, the better.
2. Similar information: Are there any clues that you see between calls/texts that you received from the number that you know to be from the abuser (assuming there is a number that you previously know to be from the abuser) and the calls/texts from the spoofed phone numbers? Sometimes people will send messages (either voice messages or text messages) from multiple spoofed numbers. Sometimes they will write in a similar manner, with similar words, or with similar information and this can be shown to the judge as another indication that the calls/texts could be from the same person.
3. Suspicious timing: Did the calls/texts start immediately after a certain event that can be proven in court? For example, sometimes you may have evidence of a breakup (or some other noteworthy incident) that can be proven to the judge by showing social media posts, voicemails, emails, or other proof that acknowledge the breakup or other incident. Often, the spoofed calls may start immediately afterwards. By providing testimony or other evidence in court to show that the event took place and then proof that the calls started immediately afterwards (phone records are great for this), this may help convince a judge that the abuser has made the calls/texts.
4. Other types of abuse: Is the abuser doing anything else that you can prove to the judge? Showing up at your home or work? Posting negative things about you online? (Sometimes, doing a Google search for your own name can reveal if the person is posting anything about you online.) Or perhaps the person has said something about you on Facebook or another social network? Often times, if you can prove to the judge that there are other forms of abuse going on during the same time period of the spoofed calls/texts, a judge may believe that the same person is behind both things. One thing to note, however, is that if you are thinking of trying to send the abuser a “friend request” or something similar to try to see his/her Facebook posts, this may actually hurt your case in court. An opposing lawyer may use such a “friend request” as evidence against you to say that the person would not become “friends” with someone who is harassing him/her.
5. Evidence in court: Sometimes the best way to get evidence to use against someone in court is actually to request help from the court to get it. For example, you may be able to ask the judge to sign a subpoena for the abuser’s cell phone records and for your own phone records. You may have to convince the judge as to why s/he should sign the subpoena and so coming prepared with all of the information listed above may be useful in trying to convince the judge to sign the subpoena. Phone records are often the most direct way to show that spoofing has occurred. Comparing the phone call records may show that the abuser made a call at a certain time and that you received a call at that exact same time or a minute after. Sometimes, your number won’t show up on the phone call logs because the abuser can call a spoofing number and then enter the number that s/he wishes to call (yours). In that case, only the online spoofing numbers would show up on the phone records of the abuser. However, if the time of the calls made and the calls received match up, this can still be persuasive to a judge. However, comparing phone records is not a perfect answer because not all spoofing calls will be on the phone records. For example, if the person makes the spoofed calls through an app, you may need to request the records from the app itself - but you may not know which app was used. If the calls were made from an app and therefore do not appear on the abuser’s phone records, this may harm your case because the judge may see this as proof that the abuser did not make the calls.
For more information about getting evidence for court, please take a look at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges How to Gather Tech Evidence and 10 Steps for Presenting Evidence in Court.
What resources exist if I am a victim of spoofing?
If you are a victim of spoofing, you could contact a lawyer in your state for legal advice about what laws could apply to your situation. You could also work with an advocate in your state to plan for your safety. Additionally, the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net Project also has information and resources for victims of technology-facilitated abuse. Finally, for additional information about getting evidence for court, please take a look at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges How to Gather Tech Evidence and 10 Steps for Presenting Evidence in Court.
Electronic Surveillance (“spying”)
Electronic surveillance involves watching or monitoring a person’s actions or conversations without his/her knowledge or consent by using one or more electronic devices or platforms.
What is electronic surveillance?
Electronic surveillance is a broad term used to describe when someone watches another person’s actions or monitors a person’s conversations without his/her knowledge or consent by using one or more electronic devices or platforms. In a relationship where there is domestic violence or stalking, an abuser may use recording and surveillance technology to “keep tabs” on you (the victim) by monitoring your whereabouts and conversations. The motive for using electronic surveillance may be to maintain power and control over you, to make it hard for you to have any privacy or a life separate from the abuser, and/or to try to discover (and stop) any plans you may be making to leave the abuser.
Electronic surveillance can be done by misusing cameras, recorders, wiretaps, social media, or email. It can also include the misuse of monitoring software (also known as spyware), which can be installed on a computer, tablet, or a smartphone to secretly monitor the device activity without the user’s knowledge. Spyware can allow the abusive person access to everything on the phone, as well as the ability to intercept and listen in on phone calls. To learn more about spyware, visit the Safety Net’s Toolkit for Survivors or go to our Crimes page to see if there is a specific spyware law in your state.
Is electronic surveillance illegal?
It depends on whether the person doing the recording is part of the activity or conversation and, if so, if state law then allows that recording. In most circumstances, what is generally referred to as “spying,” meaning someone who is not a part of your personal/private activities or conversations monitoring or records them without your knowledge, is usually illegal. The differences between these two are explained more below.
If the person is part of the activity or conversation:
Many states allow someone to record a phone call or conversation as long as one person (including the person doing the recording) consents to the recording. Other states require that all parties to the communication consent.
For example, if Jane calls Bob, Jane may legally be able to record the conversation without telling Bob under state X’s law, which allows one-party consent for recordings. However, if state Y requires that each person involved in the conversation know about and consent to the recording, Jane will have to first ask Bob if it is OK with him if she records their conversation in order for the recording to be legal. To learn more about the laws in your state, you can check the state-by-state guide of recording laws from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
If the person is not part of the activity or conversation:
There are several criminal laws that address the act of listening in on a private conversation, electronically recording a person’s conversation, or videotaping a person’s activities. The names of these laws vary across the country, but they often include wiretap, voyeurism, interception, and other recording laws. When deciding which law(s) may apply to your situation, this may often depend on the circumstances of the surveillance and whether you had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” while the abuser recorded or observed you. Legally, a reasonable expectation of privacy exists when you are in a situation where an average person would expect to not be seen or spied on.1 For example, a person in certain public places such as in a football stadium or on a main street may not reasonably have an expectation of privacy, but a person in his/her bedroom or in a public restroom stall generally would.
1 See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) (noting that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection. But what he seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.”)
What is spyware?
Spyware is monitoring software that can be used to secretly monitor a device’s activity without the user’s knowledge. Spyware can be installed on a:
- smartphone; or
- other device.
Spyware can allow an abuser access to everything on your device, as well as the ability to record and listen in on phone calls or other communications. Spyware software may be hidden on a device, and generally does not give a notification that the software has been installed or is in use. It can be hard to find spyware once it is installed and also hard to remove from a device.
If the abuser is using spyware, s/he may be breaking the law in your state. Installing and using spyware could be illegal based on stalking or harassment laws, computer laws, wiretapping, or eavesdropping laws. You may want to speak with a lawyer in your state for legal advice. To read the specific language of the laws in your state, go to our Crimes page.
What specific crimes come under the category of “electronic surveillance?”
There are various laws that an abuser may be breaking by electronically surveilling someone or by recording someone’s private conversation without their consent.
Some states have specific laws that address the recording of telephone, online, or in-person conversations. If someone who is not a part of your conversation records the conversation without your consent, it may be illegal even if you know that person is listening to you speak. Below, we give general definitions of various types of crimes. To read the specific language of the laws in your state, go to our Crimes page.
Wiretap is a form of electronic surveillance where a person monitors or records telephone communications. Most typically, people think of wiretapping as a way that law enforcement tracks criminals or gets access to incriminating evidence. However, wiretaps are also something that abusers and stalkers have misused to listen in on and record telephone conversations. Many states have laws that criminalize wiretapping. In addition, most state wiretap laws also address whether someone who is part of a conversation is allowed to record that conversation without the permission of others.
Interception occurs when someone who is not part of a conversation uses technology to interfere with the communication so that s/he can overhear or record the conversation. Interception laws usually apply to communication other than telephone conversations, such as email and text messages. Many states may have either an interception law or a wiretap law; so, if you don’t find one in your state, look for the other.
Eavesdropping is the crime of listening in on or recording another person’s private conversation without the consent of one or both of the parties. Eavesdropping can be done in various ways, some of which may not involve complex technology. For example, if you are talking on a landline at home, someone else can pick up another receiver in your home and listen in. If someone wants to record your conversations, this could be done on a basic tape recorder or by using an app or software to monitor and record conversations on your smartphone. Eavesdropping laws generally apply when the parties have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
INVASION OF PRIVACY / VOYEURISM
Invasion of privacy laws can apply to situations where an abuser misuses technology, such as a surveillance device, in order to observe, monitor, or record your personal or private activities. This may include taking nude or partially nude photos or videos without your consent. It can also include when an intimate partner secretly videotapes sexual acts without the consent of his/her partner. Voyeurism refers to the act of spying on someone for sexual pleasure. Voyeurism does not always include videotaping or the use of electronic devices (it may apply to physically spying on someone), but the act of videotaping your sexual activity (or nudity) without your consent and knowledge could fall under the crime of voyeurism if there is no “invasion of privacy” law in your state.
Impersonation generally refers to when someone uses a false identity and commits acts that will result in personal gain or that will deceive or harm another person, which often involves the use of technology.
What is impersonation?
Impersonation generally refers to when someone uses a false identity and commits acts that will result in personal gain or that will deceive or harm another person.
Is impersonation illegal?
It depends. Some states have laws that criminalize impersonating certain types of professionals or public figures (such as law enforcement, political officers, or lawyers) or criminalize impersonating another person with the intent to defraud someone (cheating/tricking someone out of something). However, even if impersonating you or someone else is not a crime under your state’s laws (if, for example, you do not fall under a protected category), the acts committed during the impersonation could be criminal. For example, if an abuser impersonates you to withdraw money from your bank account, s/he may be committing the crime of theft or fraud. If an abuser impersonates someone else in order to harass you, s/he may be committing the crime of harassment, and, if there is a restraining order in place, s/he may also be committing the crime of contempt.
What are some ways that an abuser might use technology for impersonation?
There are many ways that abusers misuse technology to help them impersonate someone.
Abusers might create fake social media accounts in your name, log into your accounts by having or guessing the password, or manipulate technology in a way that makes it seem like a communication is coming from you. Through impersonation, abusers may gather confidential or personal information about you from your friends, family, or employer; spread harmful information about you; or even create false “evidence” that casts doubt on your courtroom testimony or on your version of events that you included in a court petition or police report. Some abusers have even created fake messages to make it look like they are the person who is getting harassed. Additionally, an abuser may try to impersonate you or someone else online as a way to learn information about your location or trick you into meeting him/her somewhere.
Abusers may create “fake” email accounts (accounts not connected to their own name) for various reasons. They may use the accounts to send harassing emails that look like they are coming from someone else or that mask their identity as the sender. In many cases, however, the original sender can still be proven with the help of law enforcement.
Abusers may also send an email from these “fake” accounts to trick you into opening a message that contains a virus or spyware that would then allow them to spy on your computer. Abusers may also create an email account in your name in order to send emails to others while pretending to be you. This could be done because they are trying to embarrass you, discredit you, put you at risk of harm, or cause some other negative consequences in your life.
Spoofing is a form of impersonation where an abuser could mask or hide his/her actual phone number so that another phone number (chosen by the user) shows up on the recipient’s caller ID. You can find more information about spoofing in on our Spoofing page.
An abuser may also use your private information to pose as you on the Internet and invite others to harass you or put you in danger. For example, an abuser may create an advertisement (posing as you) directing others to contact you for escort or massage services, or inviting others to come to your home or call your home for a specific purpose.
Some abusers could even use impersonation to encourage others to sexually assault you. An abuser could include information in the advertisement or online post that states that you have a “rape fetish” or “rape fantasy” and asks for someone to carry out this “fantasy.” The purpose of these types of online posts is so that the third party who is sexually assaulting you thinks that your protest or resistance is part of some type of “role-playing.” (Note: In these types of cases, the abuser who makes the post will often be charged with rape or solicitation to commit rape, in addition to whatever rape charges are filed against the person who actually commits the sexual assault).
What laws protect me from impersonation?
Depending on the abuser’s behavior, there may be laws in your state that can protect you. Please note that these laws, explained below, do not necessarily have to involve impersonation, but may apply when someone is impersonating you.
If an abuser impersonates you or someone else for the purpose of harassing you, that may be a crime that you can report to the police. As a victim of harassment, you may also be eligible for a restraining order, depending on your state’s laws. To see if there is a law against harassment in your state, go to our Crimes page for your state.
Defamation is a legal term that refers to the act of saying or writing false information to others that damages a person’s reputation in the community. If the damaging statement is spoken out loud, that act may be considered slander; and if the statement is written, then it may be considered libel. Slander and libel are not considered crimes, but they are classified as “torts” (civil wrongs) in most states, which means you could sue someone in civil court for damages.
For a statement to be considered slander or libel, the judge will generally require proof that:
it was a false statement;
it was published (meaning a third party must have read or heard the statement); and
the statement caused harm to your reputation (which is often proven by showing that your business was negatively impacted or that you were subjected to public hatred/disapproval, disgrace, or ridicule).
If an abuser has impersonated someone else to speak or write false and damaging statements about you, or has impersonated you to spread false information, you may be able to sue in civil court for money damages. See our Suing an Abuser for Money page for more information on civil lawsuits.
False light is a tort (civil wrong) that is available in some states and is similar to defamation (explained above). False light privacy claims are different from defamation claims because defamation is meant to protect your reputation and false light privacy laws are meant to protect your mental or emotional well-being. To prove false light, the courts generally require proof that:
- the abuser attributed a statement/view to you that you do not hold (placing you in a “false light”);
- his/her actions were done with “actual malice;” and
- the statement or view that s/he attributed to you puts you before the public in a very offensive and untrue manner.
If an abuser has impersonated someone else to share information that places you in a false light, you may be able to sue in civil court for money damages. Generally, even if the information published about you is not necessarily false but is misleading and offensive, a false light claim may apply.
There may be criminal laws in your state that specifically address impersonation. If the abuser is impersonating you with the purpose of defrauding someone, or if the abuser is impersonating a law enforcement officer or public official, his/her behavior may be a crime. You can check your state’s Crimes page to see if your state has a specific impersonation crime. You can also find information about your state’s identity theft laws on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.
In addition, there is a federal law (which applies to all states) called the Truth in Caller ID Act. This law prohibits the falsifying or spoofing of caller ID information with the intent to defraud (cheating/tricking someone out of something), cause harm, or wrongly obtain anything of value.1 If a person violates this law by illegally spoofing his/her caller ID, s/he can be reported to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and face penalties of up to $10,000. Note: The law does allow for people to use spoofing to mask their caller ID information as a way to protect their personal information and privacy (such as victims of domestic violence concerned for their safety) as long as it’s not being done to cause harm or to defraud anyone.
To learn more about the Truth in Caller ID Act, including information on how to make a complaint if you believe someone is spoofing you illegally, visit the Federal Communications Commission’s website.
1 47 U.S.C. § 227(e)
An abuser may misuse GPS technology to try to gain or keep control over you.
What is GPS monitoring?
A Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of satellites that provides location information to many common devices such as smartphones, car navigation systems, and laptop computers. The satellite information allows these devices to be located on a map. There are many different types of devices that use GPS technology and GPS can be extremely useful for tasks like finding nearby establishments or getting directions to an unknown location. For all of the positive uses of GPS, the expanded use of GPS-enabled devices has also increased the inappropriate use of technology to monitor or track a person’s location.
GPS monitoring can also lawfully be used in many ways – for example, a parent may monitor the whereabouts of a minor child or a judge may order that someone on probation be monitored through a GPS device. However, as GPS technology has become cheaper and more advanced, small and easily hidden devices can include GPS technology and make it harder to know which devices have tracking capabilities, enabling abusers to misuse the technology to track your location. For example, nearly all cellphones now have GPS technology that could be misused by an abuser to gain access to information about where you are and where you have been.
How can an abuser misuse GPS technology?
Because domestic violence is about one person seeking power and control over another person, an abuser may misuse GPS technology to try to gain or keep control over you. For example, an abuser could use GPS to learn where you have been, and then misuse this information against you. Because GPS-enabled devices can be so small and easily hidden, an abuser could hide a device in your belongings or car. The GPS in your phone could also be used to track you. Your location information through the GPS in your phone is not automatically available to another person, but there are a variety of ways that an abuser could get that information. Some examples of how that information could be accessed is if an abuser shares a cell phone plan with you, if s/he can access your cell phone account, or if s/he has another way of accessing your information, such as through spyware, downloaded apps, or when your devices are synced to the “cloud” or your computer. An abuser may use this technology as a way to stalk you or to maintain power and control over you by not allowing you to have any privacy or autonomy.
What laws can protect me from GPS monitoring?
Some states may have laws that specifically protect you from having a tracking device installed on your property without your consent. If the abuser tampered with your personal technology devices (e.g., cell phone, tablet, etc.), there may also be state laws that protect you, such as interference or tampering with an electronic communications device. Depending on the language of your state’s laws, stalking, harassment, or cyberstalking laws may protect you from this behavior as well. You can read our Stalking/Cyberstalking page for more information. Additionally, electronic surveillance laws may also apply to a situation where an abuser is monitoring or tracking you. Many of these laws are not specifically focused on domestic violence, so when speaking to the police, an advocate, or an attorney, it may be a good idea to suggest that they look at the computer crimes or privacy laws within your state.
You can find laws in your state on our Crimes page by selecting your state from the drop-down menu. You can also find legal resources on our Finding a Lawyer page to discuss your case with a lawyer.
What can I do to stay safe or prevent the mis-use of a GPS-enabled device?
If an abuser seems to know too much information about where you have been or shows up in random locations that you did not share that you would be at, you may consider checking your belongings or car for hidden GPS-enabled devices. GPS can be included on a number of different types of devices, so you may need to look for something that you do not recognize or something that is out of the ordinary. A device will generally need a power source, so if a person has not had access to your belongings for a substantial period of time, you may want to see if there is a device that is connected to a power source like your car battery or under your dashboard. You may be able to get help from a professional to search your belongings. If you find something, an attorney, advocate, or law enforcement can help you determine what the device is and what to do with it. You can also find out a lot of information about a device if you do an online search with a description of the device that you found.
In addition to looking for unknown devices, it is also important to consider whether GPS is currently enabled on the devices that you already own. Devices to consider, include but are not limited to, your phone, your computer, a “wearable” device like a smart watch, and devices used by people close to you, like your children. Many “apps” and programs on your devices are GPS-enabled and could possibly send information to a person who intends to misuse that information. If you have any questions, a professional can help or you could try an online search with the words “how to turn off GPS on my [insert device name].” More information about phone safety can be found at limit location access on your smart phone.
You may also consider keeping a log of incidents related to the tracking so that you have evidence of a pattern or history to share with a lawyer or law enforcement.
GPS monitoring can be particularly dangerous if you are attempting to safely leave an abusive relationship since the abuser would be able to locate you. However, if you find a GPS device in your property, it can be important to safety plan with an advocate before removing any type of tracking device since removing the device may alert the abuser that you have found it. You may consider calling a domestic violence program from a public or third party’s telephone to safety plan if the abuser is tracking your location or monitoring your telephone.
Safety Net, a project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, also has information on how you can limit location access on your smart phone and tips for staying safe if an abuser is using technology to monitor you.
An abuser may access (break into) your computer or other technology device without your permission and copy or steal your data, such as private identifying information, employment information, calendar details, etc.
What are computer crimes?
The term “computer crimes” refers to a broad category of crimes that could include a number of criminal activities that violate your privacy or interfere with your data/technology. Computer crimes include but are not limited to, misusing a computer to steal information or something else of value, manipulate you, harass you, or impersonate you. Some of the crimes described can also be committed without the use of computers or technology, such as fraud or identity theft, but technology can often make it easier for an abuser to commit those crimes by assisting him/her with accessing or using your private information, copying your data, destroying your information, or interfering with your data or technology. Other crimes we describe, such as hacking, are specific to the use of computers or technology devices.
How can an abuser commit a computer crime as a way to abuse me?
An abuser could commit a computer crime to gain access to your information and use that information to keep power and control over you. S/he may do this by accessing (breaking into) your computer or other technology device without your permission and copying or stealing your data, such as private identifying information, employment information, calendar details, etc. Depending on the information that the abuser steals or learns, s/he may use that information to stalk or harass you (showing up at the places where you have marked in your calendar) or by blackmailing you by threatening to share your private information. If the abuser steals nude or sexual images or videos, s/he may threaten to post or share these videos as a way to gain control over you. See our Abuse Involving Nude/Sexual Images page for more information.
What are some examples of computer crimes?
The term computer crimes can be used to describe a variety of crimes that involve computer use. Computer crimes do not include every type of misuse of technology. The list of possible crimes below is not all of the ways that a computer could be misused but will give you an idea of some of the more common forms of misuse. See our full Technology Abuse section to read about additional ways an abuser can misuse technology and other legal options.
Hacking is when someone intentionally gains access to your computer without your permission or accesses more data or information than what you allowed. An abuser could gain access to your computer if s/he knows your password, if s/he has the skills to break into your system, or by using software designed to gain entry into your technology. An abuser could also hack into your account without your knowledge, including through the use of spyware. Therefore, it is important to keep safe passwords and to only use technology devices that you believe to be safe and free of spyware or malware.
Spyware is software that allows someone to secretly monitor/observe your computer activity. The software can be inappropriately installed on computers and on other devices, such as tablets and smartphones. Spyware can be installed without your knowledge by either gaining physical access to your device or sending attachments that will download the software onto your device when you click on a link or download the attachment. Spyware is typically a “ghost file,” which means it runs hidden on your computer and can be difficult to notice or remove. Once spyware is installed, an abuser can see and record what you type, the websites that you visit, your passwords, and other private information. Many states have laws that specifically prohibit installing spyware on a computer without the owner’s knowledge. If your state doesn’t have a law that addresses spyware, you may check the other computer-related crimes to find out if the abuser’s actions are a crime.
Phishing is a way that an abuser may use a text message or an email that looks real or legitimate to trick or scam you into providing your personal information. The abuser could then go on to use your personal information to steal your identity, monitor you, or blackmail you.
Computer fraud is when someone uses computers, the Internet, Internet devices, and Internet services to defraud people, companies, or government agencies. (To “defraud” someone means to get something of value through cheating or deceit, such as money or Internet access.) An abuser could use a computer or the Internet to pose as someone else and defraud you or to pose as you and defraud a third party (to cause you to face criminal consequences, for example).
Identity theft is the crime of obtaining the personal or financial information of another person with the purpose of misusing that person’s identity. An abuser could use your identity to destroy your credit score, attempt to make you lose your job, obtain public benefits in your name, or subject you to criminal consequences for his/her actions. Many times, abusers use information that they already have available such as a Social Security number, name and date of birth, and residential history in order to steal an identity. However, even if an abuser only has some of the above information, s/he could still commit identify theft by gaining information by using another computer crime such as hacking, spyware, or phishing.
What types of laws protect me from computer crimes?
There are several federal laws that address computer crimes, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Wiretap Act. Additionally, many states have individual laws that protect a person against hacking. The law in your state may be called hacking, unauthorized access, or computer trespass (or by another name) depending on your state’s laws.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has complied computer crime laws on their website and state phishing laws. The National Conference of State Legislatures has also compiled spyware laws on their website. You can also check our WomensLaw.org Crimes page in your state to see if we list any relevant crimes.
Additionally, you may also have an option to use the civil legal system to combat computer crimes. For example, you may be able to sue the abuser in civil court for the misuse of a computer. When you sue a person in civil court, you can ask for money “damages” based on what you lost and other harms that you experienced. You may also be able to ask a civil court, including family, domestic relations, or divorce courts depending on your state, to order the person to stop committing computer crimes by asking a court to include protection provisions in a restraining order. If you have a restraining order, committing a computer crime may also be a violation of the order. Violating a restraining order could mean that the abuser committed contempt of court (an offense that could have civil and/or criminal consequences). You can find lawyer referrals on our WomensLaw.org Finding a Lawyer page if you want to try to get legal advice or representation or you can contact the National Crime Victim Bar Association for a lawyer referral.
Responding to Technology Misuse: Civil and Criminal Options
Technology misuse can often be dealt with in both civil court and criminal court. The process and purpose for using each court is different and you may accomplish different outcomes depending on which court you are in.
What are the basic differences in criminal and civil court cases?
In criminal court, the case is filed by the state or county prosecutor and the purpose is to punish the abuser for breaking the law, which may result in jail time. In civil cases, the case is filed by you (the victim) or your attorney and the purpose is usually to have the abuser pay you for damages that his/her behavior caused you. In civil cases, you are not asking the judge to send the abuser to jail for his/her behavior (even though the abuser’s behavior may be a crime in your state). In some situations, there may be both civil and criminal cases happening at the same time or close in time based on the abusive behavior. For example, in 2008, Erin Andrews, a sportscaster on ESPN, was stalked by a man who filmed her in her hotel room through a peephole. A year later, the stalker was convicted of stalking in criminal court and sentenced to over 2 years in jail. Five years later, Erin Andrews successfully sued the stalker (in addition to the hotel and others) in civil court for money damages based on negligence, invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. It may not always be clear what legal options are available to you and so it’s important to consult with an attorney who is knowledgeable about the laws surrounding technology misuse.
What can I accomplish through civil court?
One way to address the misuse of technology can be through the civil court system. To file a lawsuit in civil court, you can use an attorney or file on your own. You (the victim) can sue for money damages for things like lost wages, loss of your job, emotional pain and suffering, damage to yours reputation, and even punitive damages (to punish the defendant). If your damages are below a certain amount, you may be able to file on your own in small claims court. In some states, if you were the victim of the crime of disclosure of intimate images, the law may allow you to sue the person who discloses or uses the image for damages that increase each day the abuser is in violation of the law. You can learn more about the option of suing an abuser in civil court by reading our Suing an Abuser for Money page and selecting your state from the drop-down menu. You can also ask the court to issue an order (often called an injunction or a restraining order) in which the judge orders the defendant to stop doing certain things (like sending images of you to others) or to force him/her to do certain actions (such as destroying or turning over images). Restraining orders may be a legal remedy for victims experiencing various types of abuse involving technology (and not only for nonconsensual image sharing cases) depending on your state’s legal definition of domestic violence.
There also may be other important civil legal options to consider in technology-related abuse cases, especially those that deal with the sharing of images of you without your consent. One possible option, for example, deals with turning over the copyright of images to you. Generally, copyright law may protect certain photos or videos taken as an “original work,” and the person who takes a photograph or video is generally the copyright “owner.” The owner of the copyright can decide if, how, and when those images are distributed, published online, etc. However, in a civil lawsuit, it may be possible for you to request – and for a judge to order – that the defendant sign over any copyright ownership of the images to you (the victim). Therefore, if you are the copyright owner, you would have the legal power to decide where the pictures are published and you may be able to demand that the pictures be removed from the Internet or other publications. For advice on whether or not you may have a valid legal claim to get the copyright of any images taken of you, please consult with a lawyer who is knowledgeable about copyright law and technology misuse. See our National Organizations - Posting Nude/Sexual Images Without Consent/”Revenge Porn” section for legal referrals.
What can I accomplish through criminal court?
Another way to address technology misuse is through the criminal court system. In the criminal law system, cases are filed by the state prosecutor (also called the district attorney or attorney general in some states) based on violations of state criminal law. (Or if a federal law is violated, the federal prosecutor would be the one to file the case.) Generally, when you call 911 or go to the police department to file a criminal complaint, the police will do an investigation and if there is “probable cause” to make an arrest and sufficient evidence to prosecute, the abuser may be charged with a crime. To see a list of some common crimes in your state, especially those that involve technology misuse, go to our Crimes page and enter your state in the drop-down menu.
One important difference between a civil and criminal case is that in a criminal case, the prosecutor is the one who decides whether or not to file the criminal case against the abuser and whether or not to withdraw the criminal charges. Once a criminal case has been filed, if you later decide that you do not want the case to continue (you want to “drop the charges”), the prosecutor does not have to drop the case (since the prosecutor is not “your attorney”). It is up to the prosecutor whether to continue the case or not. You do not necessarily have the same ability to start or dismiss a case in criminal court the way you may be able to in civil court.
How can I stay safe if I am the victim of technology abuse?
Nothing is more important than your safety and your well-being. If you are being abused or stalked by someone who is misusing technology, it will be important to think through ways to increase your safety and privacy that take that technology into consideration. Since technology is constantly changing and the application of laws in this area are still developing, there could be situations where the current law may not address exactly what is happening. However, most acts of misusing technology for the purposes of harassment, stalking, and abuse are illegal.
Even if you are unable to or choose not to seek protection, damages, or other forms of justice in civil or criminal court, you can still make a plan for your safety and get help to deal with the emotional trauma that you may experience. See our Safety Planning page for more information on ways to increase your safety. You can contact your local domestic violence organization for additional help creating a safety plan or for other assistance. You can also find general safety planning tips and suggestions related to technology on the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net project’s Technology Safety page.
What resources are available for advocates or survivors?
There may be some helpful resources available to you if you want to learn more about technology misuse and increasing your privacy and safety online:
- National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net project - Technology Safety & Privacy toolkit for survivors
- Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center – Resources for Victims
- Cyber Civil Rights Initiative – End Revenge Porn Crisis Line
- Electronic Frontier Foundation - Surveillance Self-Defense toolkit
- Love Is Respect Teen Dating Helpline.
Evidence Issues in Cases Involving Technology
In cases involving the use of technology, you may have some additional challenges related to saving and presenting your evidence. In this section, we discuss some ways you can prepare your evidence for court.
This section on digital evidence explains different types of digital evidence and what a person with digital evidence in his/her case should consider before court.
What is digital evidence?
Digital evidence is information that is stored on, received, or transmitted in a digital format by an electronic device that can be used in court to help prove abuse occurred. Digital evidence is sometimes referred to as electronic evidence. This evidence is often created when abuse involves the use of technology. Here are a few examples:
- when an abusive person sends text messages that contain threats, those messages (or screenshots of those messages) become digital evidence that can be used in court to help prove the threatening behavior;
- when an abusive person creates harassing posts on social media, those posts (or screenshots of those posts) become digital evidence that can be used in court to help prove the harassing behavior; or
- when someone uses technology to stalk a victim, there may be evidence in the form of GPS tracking data, video footage, or spyware purchases that can be used as evidence to help prove surveillance occurred.
How is digital evidence different from other types of evidence?
Digital evidence is different from other types of evidence that you may want to use in court, such as printed pictures, testimony, and other types of official records.
One difference is the actual format of digital evidence, which would be in electronic data files. These files are most commonly found on mobile devices and computers, or stored in online accounts. Therefore, you will need to think through how to present it in a format that the judge will be able to examine. For example, if your evidence is located on your cell phone, and the judge needs to keep your evidence as part of the court record, you would want to think about how to get your evidence printed from your phone or in some other format that the judge can keep (so that the judge doesn’t keep your phone).
Another difference is that digital evidence can be easily changed, damaged, or destroyed, so it is important to protect the data. This may be done by creating backup copies that are saved to a second device, taking screenshots and emailing them to yourself, and updating account passwords.
What should I do to prepare for my case if it involves digital evidence?
What you should do in your individual case will depend on your state’s rules of evidence and the type of abuse you are experiencing. However, here are some things you may want to consider:
- Find out how to get your evidence. You may be able to get your evidence directly through your own accounts or you may have to request that a third party (such as a telephone company) provide you with the evidence you need.
- Save the evidence. You can learn more about what needs to be saved and how to best save it in our Documenting/Saving Evidence page.
- Take pictures, screenshots, or printouts of any evidence that is on your phone or table that you want to leave with the judge. If your evidence is only on your own telephone or tablet, you may be required to leave it with the judge until your hearing is over if you don’t have it printed out or saved in another format.
- Think about the testimony you plan to tell the judge and how your evidence fits with your testimony. In order to “admit” (enter) evidence in court, you will likely have to testify (“lay a foundation”) about:
- how you came upon that evidence; and
- how you know that it is the abuser who sent the messages, posted the social media posts, etc.; and
- Check with a lawyer in your state if you made a video or audio recording to capture evidence of the abuse. In some states, it may not be legal for you to record a conversation if the other person being recorded doesn’t know about it. You can also read more about recording laws on our website.
Again, it is helpful to work with a lawyer to prepare for a court hearing or get legal advice about what you may be able to use in court.
Will I be able to get my digital evidence into the court record during my hearing?
Maybe. Each state is governed by what are called “rules of evidence.” Your state can have its own rules or the state may follow the Federal Rules of Evidence (which are general rules that are followed by many states). The rules generally address what is allowed as evidence in court and deal with issues such as:
- exceptions to the rule against “hearsay;”
- what types of documents may have to be certified in order for them to be admitted into court during a trial;
- what types of questions a witness can answer when testifying; and
- other topics.
The rules of evidence allow judges to only consider specific types of evidence, so whether you can have your digital evidence admitted into the court record during your hearing may depend on what your state’s rules of evidence say and what the judge decides. You can find lawyers in your state on our Finding a Lawyer page if you want to get legal advice about how to present evidence in your case.
This section on documenting/saving evidence discusses keeping evidence in cases of abuse involving technology. When evidence is located on technology devices, you may have to take precautions to make sure your evidence isn’t deleted.
What does it mean to document my evidence?
Any evidence can be documented so that you can access it later. For purposes of this page, to document your evidence means that you are taking steps to:
- preserve (keep) evidence of abuse; or
- accurately record (in a log, for example) incidents of abuse as they happen.
Part of documenting evidence means that you are not changing the evidence at all – so, for example, if the abuser sends a threatening email that is unsigned, you cannot add his/her name to the email just because you know that s/he wrote it. Documenting your evidence can be helpful if you later need to produce it for a court hearing or other legal matter. Documenting your evidence could include things like keeping a log of abusive incidents, printing out abusive emails, taking screenshots of abusive text messages or social media posts, or printing any related photographs or cell phone records.
Why is documenting evidence important in cases involving technology abuse?
If an abuser is using technology to abuse you, often the evidence of that abuse is located on the Internet or on a device like a cell phone, tablet, computer or video camera. Documenting this evidence can be very helpful if at some point you want to try to have the legal system hold the abuser accountable. It is important to document the evidence as soon as possible because an abuser may be able to access and delete the proof of the abuse.
It may be your first instinct to delete threatening messages from an abuser or to “block” the abuser if s/he is harassing you on social media. This is a completely understandable response. However, before you do this, it’s important to understand and think through how this will impact your ability to document evidence. If you delete the messages, there may no longer be evidence that you can access, and it may be difficult or impossible to access it from the abuser’s accounts or devices. There are ways you can minimize having to see the abusive material while still being able to collect and document evidence of the abuser’s crimes and behaviors. For instance, you can silence message notifications from that particular person or set up a folder in your email account and create a rule for messages from that sender to go straight to the separate folder. Filtering the abuser’s communications will allow you to have access to the information when you want to without constantly having to see it.
Documenting this evidence is so important because in court hearings for an order of protection, for example, the judge is making decisions about what to include in an order or whether to grant an order. At these court hearings, the judge will often hear evidence and testimony from both sides. Having your evidence documented in a form that you can bring to court allows you to present it to the judge to support your testimony. You may also need to show the evidence to law enforcement in certain situations or to your lawyer so that s/he can prepare for court.
How should I document the abuse?
The best way to document evidence of abuse will depend on the exact circumstances of your case and the way that the abuser is using technology to commit the abuse. You may wish to speak with a lawyer or domestic violence advocate in your state about what records you should keep. If you aren’t sure what could be useful, it is generally better to keep more evidence, rather than less.
Some ways you may consider documenting your evidence is to keep a log (or a record) of the details of each incident as the incidents occur. (You can also download a sample Technology Abuse Log to help with this.) The log could include:
- a list of the date and time of each incident;
- what the abuser did or said;
- what actions, if any, you took; and
- what witnesses or evidence you have that is related to the incident, etc.
It is important to save any voicemails, call logs, emails, or text messages that are sent, and to take screenshots or photographs of the phone or computer screen and store them in a safe location separate from the device on which you originally accessed them. When taking screenshots or photographs, be sure to include as much information as possible. For instance, you will want to show the phone number of the person who is sending harassing messages, not just the contact name you assigned to that person in your phone.
You should print out emails with the full header information included so that details such as the date and time of the email and the IP address it was sent from can be easily identified. It is important to only document this from the original email. If the email has been forwarded, you will no longer have the information related to the original sender.
Also, you can take screenshots of any posts made on social media to preserve them in case the abuser who posted them later deletes them. When you do this, be sure to include the full URL (web address) that is in the bar at the top of the window and to also take screenshots of the abuser’s profile page. Many social media sites and apps allow you to download the data on your account. Once you download your account information, you may be able to collect your evidence that way. If you have filed criminal charges, law enforcement may be able to send a letter or subpoena to the social media company or website asking them to keep the account information.
If you find evidence that you are being stalked or monitored, like a hidden camera, microphone, or GPS tracker, you may want to think through the impact of removing or interfering with the equipment. Removing it could impact both your safety (if the abuser knows that you found it) and your ability to document it. Perhaps you may want to consider asking the police to document the evidence before removing it. Before taking any action, you may want to work with a domestic violence advocate to think about how removing the equipment may impact your safety and to safety plan. The abuser may escalate his/her violence if s/he realizes you have discovered it.
Ways Courts Use Technology
Below is information on ways the court system may use technology to try to protect victims of domestic violence from an abuser, including ordering GPS monitoring of offenders, allowing virtual visitation in custody cases, and using co-parenting tools. You can also find information on ways abusers may misuse technology on our Abuse Using Technology page.
GPS Monitoring of Offenders
How do courts use GPS technology to track offenders?
Some states have specific laws that allow judges and law enforcement to use technology in ways that are intended to protect victims of domestic violence. For example, law enforcement and courts can use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology to track offenders who have committed domestic violence and stalking. There are two types of GPS tracking – active and passive. If a judge orders an abuser to wear an active GPS tracking device to monitor an abuser’s location, if the abuser enters a location where s/he is prohibited, the technology will notify you of the abuser’s location and may also be set to notify law enforcement or any court-ordered supervision agency that is monitoring the offender.
Alternatively, an abuser wearing passive GPS tracking may wear a tracking device 24-hours a day, but only be required to upload his/her location history once a day. The location history may then be reviewed from time to time by a probation officer or it may be used as a tool by law enforcement if you allege that the abuser violated the order. Depending on your state, a judge may be able to order GPS tracking in a criminal or civil court case.
Are there any risks to having an offender’s location tracked?
Tracking abusers with GPS technology can have risks if the victim relies solely upon the GPS tracking to stay safe. For example, passive GPS monitoring in domestic violence or stalking cases cannot be relied upon as a way to protect or warn you (or law enforcement) of the abuser’s location to prevent possible further abuse. Additionally, with active GPS monitoring, if there are not enough well-trained law enforcement officers to quickly respond when an abuser enters a prohibited location near you or if the court does not have proper procedures in place to hold offenders accountable for violating court orders, GPS monitoring is not as effective. Also, if you do not have access to the technology required to alert you if the offender comes near you or if the technology fails, active GPS monitoring may not provide you with enough warning for you to protect yourself. You may want to discuss your situation with a domestic violence advocate to decide whether GPS monitoring would be helpful in your situation and to safety plan. You can also read more about the risks and benefits of GPS monitoring from Safety Net’s GPS Monitoring of Offenders handout.
Is GPS tracking available in my state?
In many states, GPS tracking is used in criminal cases as part of an offender’s release conditions. However, not all states use this technology to track abusers in the civil court system. You can check your state’s Statutes page to find out if your state has a law requiring GPS monitoring of abusers and can also check with legal experts in your state. Lawyers and victim advocates in your state may also be able to help you understand what legal protections are available in your situation.
Below is information on ways the court system may use technology to try to protect victims of domestic violence from an abuser, including ordering GPS monitoring of offenders, allowing virtual visitation in custody cases, and using co-parenting tools. You can also find information on ways abusers may misuse technology on our Technology Abuse page.
What is virtual visitation?
Virtual visitation is a process where parents can use video conferencing, Skype, FaceTime and other technology to “visit” with their children. Some states have virtual visitation laws that allow a judge the authority to order that visits take place through technology as part of a custody order. This might also be used as an alternative for when the custodial parent has relocated or is requesting relocation, to ensure that the relationship and communication between the child and the non-custodial parent continues between any physical visitation that was ordered. Although a parent who is requesting relocation might be able to request virtual visits, the duration and frequency would have to be agreed upon by the parties or ordered by the judge.
How can virtual visitation help me?
Virtual visitation laws allow parents to use technology to keep in contact with a child. The custodial parent (the parent with whom the child primarily lives) may be able to use virtual visitation to allow contact with the non-custodial parent if in-person visitation is not safe (or practical) for the child or parent. Depending on what type of technology is used for a virtual visit, you may also be able to have a log or record of what happened and what was said during a visit if the technology makes a recording of the visit. You may want to also read about recording laws in our Electronic Surveillance (“Spying”) page to learn more about how this type of recording could be viewed in your state.
Are there any risks or limitations with using virtual visitation?
If you are a victim of domestic violence, you may be able to use video conferencing (or other technology and social media sites) to allow the child to have some contact with the other parent when you wish to limit in-person visits. However, in many states allow virtual visitation is used as an addition to in-person visitation, and judges may hesitate to order it as a complete replacement to visits.
Additionally, virtual visitation doesn’t remove the possibility that the abuser may abuse/harass you or your child over the technology during the visit. An abuser trying to gain access to your computer to track you or steal your information could also try to share links with you to get you to download spyware or malware onto your computer. Read more about monitoring in our GPS Monitoring page and Computer Crimes page. You may also consider talking to an advocate to safety plan around using technology with an abusive co-parent.
Is virtual visitation an option in my state?
You can check your state’s Statutes page to find out if your state has a virtual visitation law or consulting with a lawyer in your state. You may also be able to request virtual visitation even if your state does not have a law addressing it. You may consider asking a lawyer if it is possible to request virtual visitation in custody cases in your state.
Co-parenting Technology Tools
How is technology used in co-parenting situations?
Certain electronic systems exist to better facilitate communication between parties in family law cases and to coordinate custody and visitation schedules. One popular example is a tool known as “Our Family Wizard,” which tracks things like communications about the child, child custody calendars, visitation/parenting time schedules, and shared expenses. Your communications are tracked with functions such as an electronic journal, a message board, expense log, and calendar. WomensLaw is not affiliated with Our Family Wizard or any other co-parenting technology tool and cannot vouch for any products. Our Family Wizard is only named as an example.
How is using technology to co-parent helpful?
Technology tools that track your communications can protect you if there is a dispute between you and your co-parent about what was said since there is a record of the communications. If your co-parent is abusive, having a record of the conversation may deter him/her from using custody and visitation communications to harass you. Alternatively, the communication log may help if you have to prove abuse/harassment in court or provide documentation to an attorney or law enforcement official. Additionally, having clear visitation schedules that clarify the custody arrangement can be useful for when parents need to plan vacations or other activities. Using co-parenting tools could also eliminate the child’s exposure to certain high-conflict communications that may otherwise happen in person or over the phone.
Are there any risks or limitations with using technology to help with co-parenting communications?
Generally state laws do not require a judge to order how parents communicate while co-parenting (one exception might be if there is a restraining order in place). Judges may be reluctant to issue an order requiring that parents use technology to co-parent because they may not be familiar with the technology, may not believe they have the power to make that type of order, or may find it is inappropriate for some other reason. Additionally, these programs usually require a fee for use, so that may prohibit you from having access to them. To think through whether or not using some sort of communication tool may work for your situation, you may want to talk to a lawyer who specializes in custody and domestic violence issues.
You can learn about general custody laws in your state on our Custody page by selecting your state from the drop-down menu.