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The insidious reality of tech abuse

We might think we know the signs of domestic abuse: obvious bruising, for starters. A person drifting away from family and friends and enclosing themselves within their relationship. A partner who is controlling, overly jealous and possessive. But as coercive control enters the public lexicon with cases like Sally Challen’s (a woman who killed her husband, but whose conviction was overturned after it was revealed she survived decades of abuse), it’s becoming clearer than ever that domestic violence is insidious, it happens in private and the signs aren’t always clear. Tech abuse is one example of this.

Technology might have made all of our lives easier and mean we’re more connected than ever before, but it’s also made it easier for abusers to target and control their victims, as Refuge points out. We increasingly spend our time online and thus, intimate details of our lives can be accessed in a way they couldn’t before. For abusers, this means gaining further control over their victims.

So what exactly is tech abuse? It includes: constant phone calls and messages, to the victim, their family, friends and colleagues; setting up fake social media profiles to harass or monitor online activity; tracking and monitoring via GPS on smartphones and apps like ‘Find my iPhone’; playing Xbox and PlayStation games online with children outside of the agreed hours of contact; and sharing or threatening to share intimate photos and details of someone’s life—in other words, revenge porn.

What’s more, it’s becoming a growing trend, with Refuge stating that a number of the women that use their services also becoming targets of tech abuse.

Think about what’s on your phone and you’ll understand the risk: emails and text messages mean an abuser can be privy to private conversations, social media can give an insight into daily lives or be deployed to harass and humiliate, while GPS means abusers can stalk and monitor their victims. And as technology continues to develop, so do abusers’ ability to manipulate and misuse it.

In response to this, Refuge formed their tech abuse and empowerment service in 2017. The following year, by August alone, they had found 920 cases of women who had had technology used against them, to monitor, control and harass them.

One woman, named Beth, spoke of how an ex-partner would bombard her with text messages, show up where she worked and set up social media profiles so he could harass her. He threatened suicide and sent images of self harm—images, it turned out, he had found online. When she checked on him, he was fine.

The Independent detailed another woman’s story, whose abusive ex-partner also created fake social media profiles to contact her and monitor her online activity through her connections. He contacted colleagues, friends and family. Eventually, he found out where she lived thanks to social media and moved to the same area.

BBC Three produced a documentary on the subject with revenge porn survivor Zara McDermott, who found intimate pictures and videos of her had been posted online after she appeared on Love Island in 2018. But it’s not just celebrities and those in the public eye that face explicit photos of themselves being shared by ex partners online. According to the BBC, cases have doubled in recent years, with conviction rates falling.

In light of this, it may not come as a surprise to hear that the UK’s biggest open access porn site Pornhub has come under fire for not doing enough to protect victims of rape and revenge porn, with a petition calling for it to be shut down collating over 495,000 signatures. At the moment, amateur producers are able to upload videos to the site, with accusations that not enough safeguarding checks are being carried out.   

With modern advances come more insidious forms of abuse. Speaking to the BBC, Euleen recounted how an abusive ex installed cameras around their house. He claimed it was for security purposes, but then she found him watching via the cameras while she had a private conversation with her sister.

It goes beyond cameras and webcams. Smart heating systems mean abusers are able to change the temperatures within the house, without having to be there, while smart doorbells can stream video, allowing someone to monitor who enters and leaves the house. Even smart lock systems, lights and audio equipment can be used to control and harass people from afar. The women being targeted may not even realise what’s going on. It’s a form of gaslighting that doesn’t require the abuser to be present: the victim’s own home can seemingly turn against them.

In Canada, Ferial Nijem found herself in exactly that situation after she moved into a new apartment. Her abusive partner would monitor her through the surveillance cameras, the lights would go on and off without her control, as would the television. In the middle of the night, loud music would start playing, waking her up. As Nijem’s partner had set up the system, he was the only one who was able to control it. She’s not alone and it’s a growing problem.

It’s not as simple as telling women to go offline, either, as more and more homes implement smart tech. It’s a modern and insidious form of abuse, the implications of which develop with technological updates. As with other forms of abuse, raising awareness is vital. It’s important people understand how tech can be controlled, manipulated and misused so we can help those who are being abused.

In the meantime, domestic abuse services like Refuge are on hand to help women who are facing tech abuse, with specific resources and services available offering support and empowerment for abuse survivors.