DV survivors face digital stalking, harassment, identity crime

Seventy abusive texts a day, GPS devices hidden in children’s toys, fake Facebook and Instagram accounts – just some of the ways domestic abuse perpetrators intimidate, threaten, stalk, monitor and embarrass their victims.

  • Some domestic violence perpetrators continue control and coercion via mobile, social media etc
  • Techniques of control include stalking, surveillance and identity crime
  • Disengaging from communication technology often escalates the abuse
  • Study’s recommendations for providers is to eliminate charges for changing or unlisting phone numbers, and allow release from contracts and family plans when domestic violence is an issue.

The physical abuse might have been stopped, women may have moved on or re-partnered, but the psychological and emotional abuse continues via mobile phone, social media, email and surveillance technologies, a QUT School of Justice study of technology-facilitated coercive control (TFCC) of women in and after abusive relationships.

Associate Professor Molly Dragiewicz and Dr Bridget Harris headed a research team which interviewed 20 female domestic abuse survivors on their experiences with TFCC for ACCAN, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.

“One challenge for dealing with TFCC is that some behaviours and technologies used by abusers can be innocuous in the context of a non-abusive relationship, for example texting your partner to check their location can be harmless or abusive depending on the context of the relationship,” Dr Harris said.

“Pre-separation, participants said abusers gathered information about their activities, communication and movements via shared accounts or devices. Family plans and devices connected to the same cloud or wifi network were also used for surveillance.

“Some abusers even gifted phones, tablets or computers or connected profiles or offered to ‘set up our accounts’.”

Dr Harris said as the relationship deteriorated and abuse became more visible, abusers attempts at control escalated their privacy violations and demands to access women’s phones, tablets etc.

“Survivors in our sample reported that TFCC made leaving even more frightening and difficult when they knew their abuser was able monitor their devices, apps and browsing history.

“Some survivors knew they couldn’t download leaving information at work on to their phones for fear of giving away their escape plan.”

Dr Harris said survivors tried to make themselves safe, including by disengaging from technology but this could escalate rather than alleviate abuse. Offenders often reacted to disengagement in aggressive and intrusive ways.

“As a result some survivors used their phones as part of the safety work they did to protect themselves. One said she kept an Apple phone she knew the abuser used to watch and stalk her because if she went offline he could turn up in person. She texted him from that phone and kept an android phone which he didn’t have the number for all other calls.”

Abuse via technology took mainly three forms:

“Intrusion – constant demands and interruptions are a key part of TFCC. Intrusion allows abusers to harass, humiliate and pressure their partners. In this study, participants reported repetitive texting and calling,” Dr Harris said.

“Failure to reply immediately escalated aggression – ’50 to 70 texts a day, sometimes 20 to 30 missed calls’. Threats of violence or humiliation were used to reinforce demands for immediate reply.”

“Abusers contacted or threatened to contact survivors’ family, friends and co-workers in pushing for contact. Survivors feared they would say ‘bad things’ about them or impersonate them online if they refused demands to meet with them.”

Surveillance was a common technique, which sometimes when undetected for long periods. One survivor found a video camera in their shared car and learned the abuser had installed cameras throughout the house only when she saw legal documents related to their separation.

“One woman reported having to wash her children’s toys and clothes when they came back from visits to their father in order to disable any surveillance devices after a tiny GPS tracking device he had ordered, was mistakenly delivered to her address.”

Identity crime was a third common feature of TFCC.

“Survivors reported abusers gained unauthorised control of accounts and devices and impersonated them and others online. This happened during a relationship and post–separation.

“Some survivors reported abusers used fake social media profiles to contact them. During a relationship, one woman’s partner created fake social media profiles to monitor her interactions, convinced she was cheating on him.

“Our findings suggest that innovative cybersecurity responses are needed including:

  • increased recognition of TFCC as a serious part of domestic violence
  • mandated workplace training about TFCC for telecommunication companies, police, and courts
  • enhanced affordability of telecommunication devices and services for domestic violence survivors by:
  1. eliminating charges for changing and unlisting numbers
  2. releasing survivors from charges for phones that abusers have taken or destroyed
  3. offering financial hardship plans for domestic violence survivors unable to pay for phone contracts and plans
  4. improving consumer safeguards to protect privacy and facilitate release from contracts and family plans when domestic violence is an issue.

/University Release. View in full here.