Protecting clients from the misuse of technology

There are several safety issues that family law practitioners should all be aware of, both personally and professionally, in a world where our lives are increasingly intertwined with technology

As family practitioners we are often told by our clients that they think their ex-partner might have been reading their emails, looking at their text messages or generally accessing information about them that they should not have. In the context of a separation or divorce, and amid the emotional turmoil that comes with it, logging into an ex’s social media account to see who they have been messaging may seem to some clients like a fairly harmless, albeit wrong, action to take. But in some cases, accessing such information takes the form of a far more determined and sinister approach, where one ex-partner actively wants to access detailed information about the other. This could be to review their finances to try to find information to use against them in financial proceedings. Or in children matters where separated parents are locked in conflict about child arrangements, one parent may want to ensure that the other is looking after the child when they say they are (rather than leaving them in the care of a grandparent for example).

Technology and stalking

In more concerning situations, some of our clients share that they believe they are being stalked by their ex-partner, either online or with the assistance of readily available technology. Readers may recall how there have been multiple reports in the media about the misuse of Apple AirTags since their launch in 2021, and in September last year at Swansea Crown Court a man pled guilty to stalking his ex-girlfriend by gluing an AirTag under her car bumper.

The latest ONS crime survey statistics revealed that over 20% of adults who have experienced partner abuse had been victims of stalking. However, as victims do not tend to report stalking incidents to the police until the 100th incident, it is likely that these figures are significantly higher. Given the harm that stalking causes to victims (both psychologically and sometimes physically), the police should immediately be involved where stalking is suspected.

What can be done?

Given the potential for our clients to very easily become the victims of the sort of behaviour described above, there are some really basic safety and security issues that we should all be aware of in order to better safeguard them. Although these are particularly useful in separation and divorce, they are also the sort of things we all need to educate ourselves on as our lives become ever more entwined with technology.

Tell your client to log out of everything as soon as their separation becomes permanent

Get them to create new passwords and secret questions, and ask them to consider whether they need to create a new email account.

Probably the most common complaint that we have all received is about an ex-partner looking through a client’s emails or text messages. Given that most families will share a laptop or tablet, this can be an innocent mistake: a child’s time on a tablet is being supervised and a message pops up meant for the other parent because it is their account that is logged into that device.

It is essential that, once a separation has taken place, clients log out of everything and change their passwords to something that their ex-partner will not guess. Changing security questions as well will mean that it is less likely that the ex-partner will be able to regain access to that account.

Ensure your clients are aware of devices that could be used to track them

Ask your client to consider all of the following potentially internet-enabled devices: car; doorbell; watch; phone; TV; gaming console; baby monitor; smart home device. Explain to them that all of these devices could be used to monitor and record them. Cars, watches and phones in particular can be used to track movements, and baby monitors can be turned on remotely to monitor what is going on inside the home.

We all need to be smart about what smart technology we have and how to best manage it. Those features that can monitor or record can be disabled and prevented from being reactivated – we just need to know how.

Advise caution with social media

We all have that client who has aired their dirty laundry in public, usually through a long post on Facebook. But caution and restraint also need to be exercised with even the most banal seeming of posts. Clients, particularly those who regularly post about their life on social media, need to be aware that even with location and tracking services turned off, it is still possible to gain a lot of information about them from the photos and comments they post.

Clients need to be careful about what they post, ensure that their privacy settings on all of their social media accounts are updated, and should even consider cutting down on “friends” who do not need to be privy to the details of their personal life.

Suggest installing anti-virus software on mobile phones

Most people have anti-virus software on their PC or laptops, but not on their phones. Installing this is a must, particularly if a client thinks that their ex-partner might try to gain information about them through spyware. Indicators that there might be something installed on a mobile phone that shouldn’t be there are if data usage has suddenly increased, or battery life is draining a lot faster than it used to. If in doubt, an expert should be consulted.

Trust your clients’ instincts

If a client discloses to you that they think something is not right, they might be on to something. Talk through their concerns with them and consult with the relevant expert, whether that is a “secure lifestyle” company or a criminal practitioner.

The key takeaway is that when our clients are navigating a separation, they (and we as practitioners) should be aware of what the technology they are using can do, and how they can minimise the risk that their ex-partner will be able to misuse the same.

For those practitioners who would like to learn more about the issues raised in this piece and what steps their clients can take to protect themselves, OurFamilyWizard has recruited Steven Bradley, an expert on domestic violence prevention, to their professional team. Steven has recently been providing training on The Intersection Of Technology And Domestic Violence In Family Law Cases to a number of family practitioners, including to East Sussex Resolution (which sparked the idea for this piece), and which is a session that all of us who attended would highly recommend.