My experience with digital privacy and stalking – an interview with Stella

On Halloween I attended the BSides conference at the Titanic Centre in Belfast.

Among various speakers providing technical presentations within their field of expertise, I met somebody whose voice was different.

Stella (this is her alias and in the interview she explains why) focused on the human aspect of digital privacy and briefly spoke about being the victim of stalking, both in the cyberspace and in real life.

Below she shares the full story and also gives her insights into the way big companies treat our digital privacy.

You can follow Stella on Twitter here.

No one needs to know your religion or sexual orientation or grocery choices to sell products to you or provide you with services. Nowadays information is used to profile people.
Stella
@MlleLicious
Who is Stella?
 
I am a survivor who followed exes career abroad, before landing in California and finally finding support I needed to break free.
 
I teach / run workshops on online resilience.
 
What is digital privacy to you?
 
Privacy is never dead, I will fight that – you can always begin again right now, reclaim your rights. Digital privacy is knowing and understanding your rights, what you have consented to- and how to change that if needed.
 
It is understanding what you are sharing or being forced to share. You know, I see a lot of security people say privacy is dead or other nihilistic stuff. A lot of them are ex-government employees and yes they do know a lot more than I do. But I don’t think we should give up on privacy.
 
How important would you say digital privacy is?
 
Vital. We are increasingly watched and monitored. Data points are humans and organisations forget that, they forget – or are recklessly careless with the harm they cause by using data and selling it on. We have the right to know and control what is shared and taken from us. We need to re-define what privacy IS and what is normal.
 
We don’t understand harm reduction, despite excellent work being done by survivor non profits and advocacy groups. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust do workshops on stalking, NNEDV have excellent resources too. Yet organisations are slow to listen. I get called paranoid and difficult for asking them to consider it.
 
We all have a right to private stuff. No one needs to know your religion or sexual orientation or grocery choices to sell products to you or provide you with services. Nowadays information is used to profile people, not protect their privacy and we have to acknowledge that. 
 
During your BSides presentation in Belfast you spoke about a personal experience with stalking. Can you tell me more about this?
 
It is a long story!!
TL:DR is that societal norms enabled, and still do enable his behaviour.
 
He was always controlling. He cut me off from friends and destroyed my confidence.  It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco,that I could shake his control. I was living closer to friends who just came around to the house, I could get rideshare and go out easily, I had opportunities he was shocked by.
 
In this landscape he kept a form of control by telling friends – who worked in Silicon Valley for tech companies and were educated people- that he could not use platforms like Facebook because I would not connect with him. So they sent him screenshots of my activity. Which was incredibly damaging and disappointing.
 
Can you give some specific examples of cyber stalking that happened to you?
 
For example: once a friend tagged me in a picture of a party she had. I was not there but she tagged a number of us to say “wish you were here”. I was out that night, only at a friend’s house dog sitting, but his friends sent him screenshots to allege that I was out. That happened a lot. He was able to gain access to my life by spinning stories that seem ridiculous but are in fact plausible.
 
Because some people believe that a woman should obey her husband or that partners of either identity should have access to each others’ lives. Some of those who helped him were women, in my circle. They openly told me that they thought it was disrespectful to my husband to be connected to his co workers and managers on platforms such as Linkedin. Some of those people came to our wedding and were professional connections I used. 
 
He also leased a Ford car that had Fordpass. This enables anyone with the app to see the car’s location, mileage, gas, as well as remote start and stop. I have no idea if he ever had this enabled, most likely not as he was not very into tech. But it was horrifying.
 
What was the company’s reaction you got when you tried to defend your privacy?
 
The Ford dealership laughed when i asked about disabling it, and in fact even security people laughed. I had jokes about “get an older car”. or “you want to hide your shopping from your husband”.
 
The Ford engineering team told me they would work on a fix- but that was from a male perspective. It ended up being a force stop to the app upon re-sale of the car.  Ford seek to monetize this data. FWIW, they record every sound, move and destination. It is horrible and nefarious and has wider implications for the future. But already- anyone in an Uber or Lyft that is a Ford, should legally be warned about their conversations etc being recorded.
 
So what active efforts did you make to free yourself from this predicament?
 
For me this is one of the main issues with coercive control, abuse and harm: getting people to accept that it happens and that “nice ” presenting people they know might do it.
 
I got a credit card that I set up secretly but told him I was using for gifts for the kids and him. When I moved, although I was paperless and had had confirmation from the bank that they understood the abuse and would NEVER send paper- they send a statement. This went to his friend’s house ( as by now my ex had returned to the UK) and the friend, who had also shared my photos etc, opened it and then compounded that felony by sending a photo and then the actual document to my ex.
 
This sounds like one offence right after the other…
 
It is hard to describe the feeling you get at these moments. The moment when I realised the car app could track me or when he sent me the picture of the statement- you are terrified. You don’t know how much they know, or how at risk you are.
 
And you are at risk, even when he screamed at me down the street (he did this today again in fact) – no one intervenes. So you know the abuse and intimidation will be incrementally worse behind closed doors. It always was. 
 
I was unable to deal with the credit card – because when I alerted them to the issue – that my mail had been intercepted- they put a stop on the account and I could not pass a ridiculous extra security check because I did not have one piece of information. They then changed the account to his name and sent me a confirmation as if I had ordered it. I can tell you, i felt nauseous and I was so sick I had to be on steroids for weeks due to stress reactions. I managed to get a confirmation that the account had been closed but three weeks ago they emailed me to remind me I had an extended credit limit!
 
Do you think that this disregard for customer’s privacy is purposely built into many business models out there?
 
It never ends. All our anti fraud and such is set up to protect business . It presumes anyone reporting fraud or stalking will have a back up financially and socially. But many don’t. It is a disaster.
 
My mobile phone provider (huge love to Three UK) were the only ones to “care”. They listened and refunded the 200 pound bill the USA CC had got me charged in phone calls when they transferred me off the free fraud line to a USA number. Total nightmare. You feel very alone with stalking. It is you and  that stalker and you are watched but yet you are surrounded by humans but no one will listen or help.
 
How do you deal with pressures of safeguarding your daily digital privacy?
 
I work and speak under a false name and even that is hard work. People often challenge it or call me paranoid. You start to feel mad yourself. You question if you are a bit paranoid. But as a survivor you can never relax. Even my own mother initially supported my ex. She is very similar to him and is one of the reasons I gravitate to abusive relationships- it is all I have known. My point is that we challenge the survivor and never the abuser.
 
Based on your story, how do you determine your online threat model now? What precautions do you take?
 
As I mentioned, I work and live under a false name mostly.
 
My social media is locked down and I don’t allow myself to be tagged without permission. My contacts are locked down. I am super careful about what i leave around my house or what details I give him now. He has some contact with me due to kids and it is hell.
 
I don’t talk to many friends or family about my new partner. We have been together two years and even people very close to us both do not know. Once I get my full divorce settlement, I will feel safer being more open. But even then, people will judge me and tell him and possibly cause harm.
 
During the conference you mentioned that you did work with people from diverse backgrounds. Can you share some stories regarding your work? What do you advise these people in terms of digital privacy and online safety?
 
Most of my work comes because famous security people refuse to help sex workers or average consumers. I send a lot of people to established experts – this is team work, it isn’t about me being THE EXPERT dot.com 🙂 
 
So i will advise people to go to forensic experts or to the police if they want to prove a device is compromised. But mostly we say – new device, lock everything down and keep it locked. The biggest risk is often friends or schools etc posting group pics online and tagging. Or forgetting about reverse image searches. I have a blog and I would love to get more consumer education out in the UK, in stores etc. Just getting support for that is hard. Doing this alone is difficult.
 
In which direction do you think online privacy trends will go in the near future?
 
I have hope for the future as long as we keep educating people and also valuing activism. A lot of people tech or not, disdain those who speak up or demonstrate etc.  We need to demand more and take action ourselves.  I think login via Facebook etc will and should become obsolete – we need to stop encouraging that and people will move away from over sharing once they realise what they are losing in doing so.
 
Thanks so much for your time Stella. Is there anything else you would like to mention before we wrap up?
 
I would love to see something like they have in Australia – support from financial and other organisations for survivors or at risk groups. Offering them credit, support and advice. I still have a fight, a year on, to prove who I am and that I can be trusted for work or banking etc. People can spiral into homelessness and debt without support. I could have done and some people would have written it off as a mid life crisis gone bad. Such is the judgement you get…

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