‘Insidious and threatening’: Health and fitness apps used for family abuse

Popular health apps on phones and devices are now being used by perpetrators of family violence to abuse their victims.

Apps such as Manage My Health, Apple Health and some period tracker apps – along with fitness apps that track activity – have been accessed by abusers in an “insidious and threatening” new form of tech abuse, according to legal experts.

The issue has been described as “widespread” by family lawyers Kesia Denhardt​ and Arran Hunt​ from law firm Stace Hammond​, in an upcoming submission to the New Zealand Law Society.

Denhardt says she has seen a growing number of clients who have had their health apps accessed or hacked to blackmail, control or discredit abuse victims.

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“Let’s say there’s been a terrible physical act [of violence] and there’s visible injuries, and the partner is wanting to see if the person has reached out to a doctor. That’s something I’ve seen several times” Denhardt told stuff.

She said clients had evidence that appointments for smear tests made with sexual health providers had led to accusations of unfaithfulness.

“[The partners] will use that to rely on to form the basis of accusations of cheating. They’ve hacked into the app and say, ‘Hey I know you’ve had these tests, you must be cheating on me.’

“And they use it to justify more abuse.”

Aotearoa Media Foundation/Supplied

Tracking online activity in health and fitness apps can be a form of abuse, legal experts warn.

The paper, due to be delivered at a Family Violence and Online Harm webinar on August 3, also gives examples of partners pretending to be the victim.

“Some perpetrators have reportedly even posed as the victim, and purportedly sent online communications on their behalf, in order to create a false narrative which would remain on the victim’s medical file.”

Fitness apps were also a concern, according to Denhardt, who recalled a case where an abusive partner had accessed her MyFitnessPal app.

“In that case, he would taunt her with insults about her being overweight, and used the app to track whether she was complying with his demands to exercise and so on.”

Netsafe, which operates under the Harmful Digital Communications Act as a first point of contact for victims, was contacted for comment but did not respond by publication time.

Denhardt said the trend showed the need for more education about protecting passwords and access to phones and computers.

“Either passwords or access codes have been exchanged in a happy time, and then [the partner] has access to the information. There’s also a scenario where a woman’s on her phone and she’s accessing her health apps, and her abusive partner is standing over her, saying tell me what your passwords are, let me see your appointments.

“People don’t see the demise of the relationship when things are all great – you’re not thinking about that at the time.

Kesia Denhardt and Arran Hunt from law firm Stace Hammond.  Their paper exposes new and evolving methods of online abuse.

SUPPLIED/Stuff

Kesia Denhardt and Arran Hunt from law firm Stace Hammond. Their paper exposes new and evolving methods of online abuse.

“You do really openly and honestly share your access codes, because everything is fine until it’s not. We do need to safeguard our privacy to some extent. In a constantly evolving technology I think we are a bit too open with sharing these things.”

Denhardt and Hunt’s submission also covers abuse via bank transfers, highlighted in a stuff article in 2021, where BNZ reported more than 10,000 potentially concerning transaction references over a six-month period.

“[R]eference fields on bank payments could include expressly derogatory comments or insults, be used as an unwanted attempt to resurrect a relationship (with a reference such as “I miss you”), or as a means of embarrassing the recipient (where the person knows bank statements or transactions will be seen by others).”

Denhardt said there was a “hole” in legal education around online family and domestic violence, and her submission to the NZLS was intended to highlight the dangers.

She said that although these victims were “plainly” not at fault, there are ways that those in abusive relationships can safeguard against this growing form of abuse, including being vigilant with passwords and other access codes, using two-factor authentication where possible, and being careful about leaving unlocked phones within reach of their abuser.

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