Digital Spying And Divorce

Jan 4, 2018
Originally published on January 4, 2018 11:00 am

A woman discovers she's being spied on by her former husband using a GPS tracker, and she suspects using spyware as well. We look at how digital spy tools are changing divorce.

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Digital spy tools are changing divorce as we know it. NPR spoke with dozens of lawyers and investigators who say more and more couples are turning to surveillance when their marriage falls apart. From something as simple as the Find My iPhone feature to insidious spyware that can be installed in a spouse's computer or phone, these tools are cheap and easy to use. NPR's Aarti Shahani has the story.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: A woman discovers she wasn't going crazy. It wasn't in her head. Her ex-husband was in fact following her every move.


SHAHANI: This is the recording from a police precinct where a sergeant is taking her statement.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Just for the record, state your first, middle and last name.

SHAHANI: We're going to call her M. NPR interviewed her, her lawyers, the sergeant, and we reviewed her court filings and those of her ex-husband. We won't disclose their names or where she is because she says she fears for her safety. All summer, M. worried her ex-husband was stalking her. As she tells the sergeant, her ex would know where she was, whom she visited, down to the time of day and street.


M: There's not really much I can do, so I've understood that what I have to do is I have to make sure that I'm as careful as possible, I have as many safety plans as possible...

SHAHANI: M. started to change the way she drove - slowing down, driving in circles - in case a private eye was on her. But she didn't see one. Then she went online, and she learned about GPS trackers, small devices you can slip into a car to monitor where it goes 24/7. She looked for one and couldn't find any, but then at her local auto shop, the mechanic found a GPS tracker hidden near the front left tire. That's why she came to this police station.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: How did you know they found this?

M: Chris, the service representative, showed me. She pushed the button in order to show that there was still 25-50 percent energy on it.

SHAHANI: Meaning the batteries were fresh, not old. It had been nearly a year since M. left her ex-husband, moved out. But he couldn't let go, and through technology, he didn't have to. This might sound highly invasive, though it turns out, at least in this case, it's completely legal. M.'s husband acknowledged through a lawyer's letter and in family court that he had the GPS tracker installed. The sergeant from the police station - he did a criminal investigation, but he tells NPR prosecutors would not prosecute because the car was jointly owned. If it belongs to both of them, the ex has a right to track it.

M: I'm now fully aware that all of those times that I thought I was keeping myself safe, all of those times that I was leaving town, all of those times that I was staying in different places or staying at friends' houses, I never was safe.

SHAHANI: Welcome to divorce in the 21st century, where what it means to be safe, how much privacy you're entitled to, is an open question. NPR talked with dozens of marital experts, lawyers, investigators and a leading family judge, and they tell NPR, digital spying is changing divorce as we know it. The tools are abundant, clients use it, and the laws are murky.

M. doesn't think her ex stopped at the GPS tracker. She suspects he used another more invasive tool too - spyware on her phone. Sitting in her lawyer's office, M. tells the story of how he went from love of her life to control freak. She says it started with verbal fights over the baby crying or shopping bills. Then one day - she explained this in court, too - he choked her.

M: And I wasn't scared. I was shocked. I wasn't scared at all. There was no moment in that interaction where I was scared. I was too shocked. I just couldn't believe it.

SHAHANI: And was now worried about physical safety - hers and her child's. She didn't leave right away. She stuck it out until this one night, she says, when he grabbed her and told her, you belong to me. It just clicked.

M: I can't explain it, but I knew we needed to leave, and we need to leave fast.

SHAHANI: M. took their child and fled. Then he filed for divorce. In family court, in her affidavits and oral testimony, M. laid out her fear of physical abuse and electronic surveillance. M. claimed her ex seemed to know the contents of her text messages, what friends she talked to, even after she left the house. Her ex denied all the allegations, and the judge - the judge focused on the physical stuff. That makes sense. Choking is a familiar offense where the harm is tangible. This newer, quieter intrusion - spying - is harder to grasp. M. gives NPR this one example of a creepy message her ex-husband sent.

M: I know all of the ways you've described to me to your friend. And snippets of how I described him were then forwarded to me as a text message.

SHAHANI: To this day, M. wonders if he knew this through spyware. These are apps. Like Netflix, you pay a subscription - say, 16.99 a month - and in return, you get to see everything on your target's phone, every incoming and outgoing message. M. didn't turn to the police because she figured in domestic cases, they investigate assault, not iPhones. Instead, M. went to the Apple Store, where she had to explain her situation in front of a lot of people at the Genius Bar. It was humiliating.

M: I can't be the only person who has no clue, goes into the Apple Store and starts jabbering about, I need help because I have stalking issues, which, in itself, sometimes makes people think that you are the stalker.

SHAHANI: M. said the Apple geniuses did not look for spyware on her phone. When they saw she was scared, she said, they helped her by swapping the device for a brand-new one. Unfortunately, that also meant the evidence was thrown out. This happens all the time in spyware cases, the experts tell NPR. Victims solve the immediate problem, but that hampers any future investigation. Spyware itself is not the crime. Dozens of companies sell it legally as a tool to monitor kids and employees. But using it secretly on your spouse - that typically is not legal. Back at the police station, M. spelled out for the sergeant how it feels to be watched anytime, any place.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Is there anything else that I need to know?

M: Yes, I'm terrified. I am absolutely terrified. I might still be functioning, but that doesn't mean that I'm not terrified.

SHAHANI: In court, M.'s ex agreed to stay away from her, and the judge ordered him to stay away from their child. He found M.'s fears for her child's safety were credible. While she has full custody now and no contact with her ex, she continues to wonder what he can and cannot see. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.

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