The tools and tactics used in intimate partner surveillance: An analysis of online infidelity forums

Emily Tseng, Rosanna Bellini, Nora McDonald, Matan Danos, Rachel Greenstadt, Damon McCoy, Nicola Dell, Thomas Ristenpart

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


    Abusers increasingly use spyware apps, account compromise, and social engineering to surveil their intimate partners, causing substantial harms that can culminate in violence. This form of privacy violation, termed intimate partner surveillance (IPS), is a profoundly challenging problem to address due to the physical access and trust present in the relationship between the target and attacker. While previous research has examined IPS from the perspectives of survivors, we present the first measurement study of online forums in which (potential) attackers discuss IPS strategies and techniques. In domains such as cybercrime, child abuse, and human trafficking, studying the online behaviors of perpetrators has led to better threat intelligence and techniques to combat attacks. We aim to provide similar insights in the context of IPS. We identified five online forums containing discussion of monitoring cellphones and other means of surveilling an intimate partner, including three within the context of investigating relationship infidelity. We perform a mixed-methods analysis of these forums, surfacing the tools and tactics that attackers use to perform surveillance. Via qualitative analysis of forum content, we present a taxonomy of IPS strategies used and recommended by attackers, and synthesize lessons for technologists seeking to curb the spread of IPS.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationProceedings of the 29th USENIX Security Symposium
    PublisherUSENIX Association
    Number of pages17
    ISBN (Electronic)9781939133175
    StatePublished - 2020
    Event29th USENIX Security Symposium - Virtual, Online
    Duration: Aug 12 2020Aug 14 2020

    Publication series

    NameProceedings of the 29th USENIX Security Symposium


    Conference29th USENIX Security Symposium
    CityVirtual, Online

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Computer Networks and Communications
    • Information Systems
    • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality


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