Almost all Australian women in domestic and family violence situations have suffered technology-facilitated abuse, according to Australia’s eSafety commissioner.
In 98 per cent of cases, current or former partners have employed technology to abuse, harass, control or stalk them, Julie Inman Grant said in remarks prepared for a National Press Club address.
“Their weapons of choice are relatively low tech — smartphones, social media, email and GPS tracking,” Inman Grant said. “But we are increasingly seeing surveillance devices in teddy bears, prams, under floor boards.”
In one case a woman who moved states to escape a violent former partner found her new home under surveillance via a drone.
The eSafety commissioner said that since the 2016 launch of eSafetyWomen as part of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, specialised training had been delivered to some 6000 frontline workers in the domestic violence sector.
The use of technology by abusive partners has added more stress for women who are in the toughest moments of their lives. Some women may not understand the size of the digital footprint that they leave. There are some basic apps that may exist on a woman’s phone and their abusive partner can easily use those to follow her movements.
Centacare’s Regional and Domestic Family Violence Service has worked with women oblivious to how their partners were monitoring their lives.
One woman learned her partner had installed miniature cameras in their bedroom and had also hacked into the Smart TV in their loungeroom.
The partner worked in the information technology industry and knew how to install and monitor the cameras and control the television.
The woman had little IT knowledge and could not understand how her partner knew so much about her movements.
One of the most obvious problems is social media – simple posts on Facebook with comments or tags from friends can alert an abusive partner to the movements of his partner.
And it doesn’t matter if a woman has made her social media account private.
Some technology experts warn women not to use their real names on their social media accounts, informing them that names and profile pictures can be seen through basic internet searches even if the account is private.
Alex Davis is a specialist in technology-based abuse at Legal Aid NSW and says it is increasingly easy for perpetrators to harass victims.
“It’s really difficult for me to remember a case where technology hasn’t been a problem,” she said.
Ms Davis said there was another emerging method called spoofing, where offenders used an app or website to hack a victims phone so that calls appeared to be coming from a friendly source.
“A number might come up it might say Mum on your phone, but really the phone call is coming from someone else,” Ms Davis said.
Domestic violence workers told the ABC it was commonplace to discover spyware on the victims’ phones or for offenders to demand passwords and controlling access to devices.
“Smart phones have Find My iPhone which is already enabled, and if a person doesn’t know the other person has a password, that’s been used to track down a lot of our clients,” Ms Davis said.
Experts are also worried by the use of the so-called “internet of things”.
Everyday objects such as lights, air conditioners, security cameras, pool pumps, dog cams and even baby monitors can now digitally connected using home automation technology, giving perpetrators another way to control a home remotely.
“We have had some issues with smart TVs being used to covertly record people with in-built cameras,” Ms Davis said.
“We’ve also had issues with the way that technology is linked up, so that a person may have access to another person’s account, so that they’re accessing all of their incoming messages or calls.
“We also have issues of hidden cameras and hidden listening devices in everyday objects.
“Another issue that our clients have to really look out for is their children being given devices by ex-partners [because] often they’ve been loaded up with things.”
The car is also not a safe space.
The ABC has also learned of a case in northern Sydney where a perpetrator installed an electronic device in his partner’s car that sent him a text alert if she left the area and allowed him to remotely cut the fuel supply.
Common tracking devices have been known to be adopted for more sinister reasons.
“These are turning up in people’s cars, clothing, and they’re being used so that a person is tracked and the person can try to hunt them down,” Ms Davis said.
Currently, prosecutors have to be able to show the court it was actually the perpetrator who hit ‘Enter’ on a harassing message.
The same goes for drones. Prosecutors have to be able to prove the perpetrator was flying the drone at the time.
NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Jones said many of the examples could be covered by existing trespass or stalking laws and encouraged people with suspicions to make a report.
He said tracking software and spyware were a particular problem, but he conceded the existing legislation did have limitations.
Commissioner Inman Grant believes the technology industry does have a role to play.
“If we’re really going to get ahead of the safety issues, the technology industry has to take a more active role in investing and innovating in safety on their platforms and that means doing the risk assessments upfront and building safety protections into their product and service development processes,” she said.
Advocates said it was important for women to be aware: delete shared apps, cloud devices and even leave the phone behind.
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