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Domestic abuse: how technology is enabling abusive behaviour

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Susan Devaney
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Domestic abuse: how digital devices are being used to enable abusive behaviour

Tech abuse – the use of technology to control, humiliate or monitor someone – is becoming a widespread problem for people trying to escape domestic abuse, new figures show.

UPDATED ON 9 JANUARY 2020: New figures have revealed the shocking extent to which domestic abuse victims are exposed to further abusive behaviour by former partners using technology.

According to statistics from Refuge, the UK’s largest provider of shelters for domestic abuse victims, 4,004 women seeking help from the service last year – around three-quarters of the total number that used the service – had been subjected to “controlling, humiliating or monitoring” behaviour from their ex-partner via technology.

Technological abuse includes persistent phone calls and messages via social media, the use of smartphones and other online devices to track someone’s location, the sharing of revenge porn and impersonating an ex-partner’s identity.

The organisation has now launched a chatbot to help women dealing with tech abuse to secure their devices, including tips on how to ensure location-tracking or map applications aren’t accessible to abuse partners. The launch coincides with the airing of Tonight, Tech Abuse: Stopping The Stalkers with Julie Etchingham on ITV tonight, which explores the issue in greater detail.

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“Tech abuse is domestic abuse. Women are reporting tech abuse to us on an alarming scale, and we know that being able to access quick, safe and accessible support in order to secure devices is crucial,” explains Sandra Horley CBE, Refuge’s Chief Executive. “We have worked with clients who have had spyware installed in their homes, or their movements tracked by abusive partners, as well as women whose children have had their toys tampered with, and tracking devices placed in them.”

AS PREVIOUSLY REPORTED IN 2018: Researchers from Privacy International and University College London have come together to create a ‘tech abuse’ list to “better inform and guide victims of technology-facilitated abuse as well as those working with them”.

The list, which was divided into digital security for women and children and how devices are connected and controlled via the internet, aimed to better equip women on how to be able to deal with making essential changes to home devices – especially after a relationship has ended.

A mobile phone used in tech abuse
Domestic abuse: tech abuse can extend to bank accounts and mobile phones.

In the UK, over two million people experience domestic abuse every year which is why SafeLives – a national domestic abuse charity – has carried out extensive research about the relationship between technology and abuse.

“Our research shows that perpetrators are getting increasingly clever at using technology to inflict abuse, meaning they can intimidate and control their partners or ex-partners even if they are not in the same place,” Suzanne Jacob OBE, chief executive of SafeLives, tells Stylist.

And the abuse even extends to bank accounts and mobile phones.

“Half of the women we talked to as part of this research said harassment was facilitated through technology. This included tracking bank accounts, hacking smart devices in the home, location tracking on mobile phones, or using social media to intimidate and blackmail partners or ex-partners,” continues Jacob. “Technology means even if the survivor has moved away and left the relationship, the perpetrator can find ways to continue their control.”

In another report about ‘technology-facilitated abuse’, domestic victims, lawyers, shelter workers and emergency responders shared detailed stories with the New York Times about how technology is fast becoming a new tool for abusers. The interviewees (all women) declined to reveal their names due to safety. In one case, a doctor in Silicon Valley said her husband, an engineer, “controls the thermostat. He controls the lights. He controls the music.” She said, “Abusive relationships are about power and control, and he uses technology.”

Unable to use the technology, she’s found herself in a position where she can’t remove her husband from the accounts.

“I have a specific exit plan that I’m in the process of implementing, and one of my fantasies is to be able to say, ‘Okay, Google, play whatever music I want’”, she said. In regard to the smart thermostat, she plans to “pull it out of the wall.”

Professionals dealing with domestic abuse help lines said there had been an increase over the last 12 months from more people calling in about losing control of the Wi-Fi, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras.

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“Imagine how you can make someone feel small and stupid because they can’t operate smart gadgets ‘properly’ – and how you can convince the abused person how much they need you because only you can operate it,” cyber-security expert Professor Alan Woodward, from Surrey University, told BBC News.

“What everyone needs to remember is that user-shaming in whatever context shows a failure of the designers, not the users.”

In the UK, a quarter of homes use smart devices on a daily basis. Not only can these devices be used to enable abuse, but experts are finding that technology-related abuse cases aren’t being treated with the same respect and care as abuse carried out in person.

“From our work we know that this form of abuse is often taken less seriously than abuse perpetrated in person, but it is commonly experienced as part of a wider pattern of domestic abuse and coercive control and must be taken seriously,” Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, tells Stylist.

Domestic abuse: in the UK, a quarter of homes use smart devices on a daily basis.
Domestic abuse: in the UK, a quarter of homes use smart devices on a daily basis.

Going forward, knowledge and education, like the ‘tech abuse’ list, will prove invaluable in dealing with domestic abuse cases involving technology.

“We have to get better at responding to this,” says Jacob. “We need to raise awareness of how these devices can be misused (amongst professionals such as the police or domestic abuse services) so that they can empower survivors to be safe.”

She continued: “It is not as simple as asking survivors to stop using these devices. Our off and online lives are interchangeable, and why should victims of domestic abuse further isolate themselves by disengaging with their online life? We have to get one step ahead.”

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For more information on how to deal with cyber security, privacy issues and a guide on how to use common smart home devices click here.

If you are worried about your relationship or that of a friend or family member, you can contact the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.womensaid.org.uk.

Images: Getty/Unsplash 

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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