Protecting Victims of Domestic Violence in the Digital Age

May 27, 2015

It isn't often that a family funeral is also a source of hope, but that is exactly what it represented for one California woman. While searching for a way to escape her violent and controlling husband, she found opportunity in an out-of-state family funeral. She arranged for her child to accompany her and bought round-trip tickets, but secretly arranged to remain in Oregon with friends. But for her cellphone, her plan would have succeeded.

When she did not return, her husband used the GPS on her phone to track her down. He scoured her phone records and determined where she was staying. He called her friends and left intimidating voice mails, threatening to kill anyone who helped her.

There is no doubt that smart phone technology has made life easier and people more connected, but it has also unintentionally made it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to make a clean break from their abusers. California Assembly Bill 1407 will correct this problem by ensuring that victims of domestic violence can gain sole access to their wireless billing accounts and the sensitive information they contain.

Cell phones store detailed information in call logs, applications, and GPS services. The designated wireless account holder has access to all of this information, including purchases made through applications and the GPS location of wireless telephones on the account.

With the prevalence of family plans, one account holder may control the cellphone service of their entire family. When an account holder is abusive, they can turn their victim's cell phone into a weapon: by interrupting service, or using information contained in the account to stalk and intimidate.

Regulations by the Federal Communications Commission require that 95 percent of cellphones include some GPS technology. This technology is enormously helpful in emergency situations, but with national statistics showing that approximately 10 million women and men are abused by an intimate partner every year, it is clear that we need a mechanism for victims to protect their information from falling into the wrong hands.

My bill will allow family courts to order wireless telephone service providers to transfer account rights to petitioners who need to escape a violent situation. The order would also transfer any phone numbers, contacts, and applications that belong to the wireless number. It will take the power out of abusers' hands and give survivors a clear line of communication with their support network.Domestic violence is notoriously difficult to escape. Survivors must leave behind the most intimate and familiar parts of their life -- their home and everyday routines. Such drastic changes would be hard for anyone, without the looming threat of violence and the lack of access to shared financial resources faced by many victims.

The greatest lifeline available is a strong support network of friends and family who can provide shelter and care. If access to cell phones and the vital contacts they contain is cut off, this support system is weakened. It is crucial that we give victims a way communicate with their loved ones to maintain a degree of normalcy in their lives.