Whilst the regular seasonal increase in domestic abuse and stalking is no surprise, what is new is how many cheap, simple to use, easily available and seemingly innocent products enable abusers to spy on their victims.
“Stalking behaviour occurs in many domestic settings both while living with a controlling partner or after the couple have split up,” says Jennifer Perry, CEO of the Digital-Trust a new organisation that helps victims of digital abuse. “Surveillance technology is getting cheaper, better disguised, simpler to use and easier to find. We work with a domestic violence professionals who are telling us that the changing landscape of digital abuse is making it much more difficult to help women and keep them safe”
A wide variety of consumerised spyware is available to suit different types of abusers, from domestic violence abusers to stalkers, from online predators to trolls. Almost all use the Internet, social media, smartphones, GPS and surveillance technology as means of accessing their targeted victims. Many of these will use the holiday gift giving season to increase their spying through giving compromised gifts.
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Some abusers will even use children to get to their victims. RoseMarie, a counsellor at Relate, recalls this happening in a particular case she worked on: “We placed a woman in a refuge whose abusive ex was determined to find her. He only had supervised visits to his young children but he used that opportunity to try and get to the mother by placing a tracking device inside a toy. That is why it is important we start consider a woman’s digital safety because it can easily compromise her physical safety.”
For older children, an effective way to find out what is going on at home is to buy them a laptop computer, smartphone or tablet and put covert spyware on it. The abuser will then be able to track the location of the device and spy on the activities of the mother and/or child using the microphone and camera.
“Eighteen months ago, I warned domestic violence groups about fathers gifting smartphones as a means of using them for surveillance. I recommend the children are given inexpensive pay as you go phones when visiting an abusive parent,” explained Jennifer Perry.
Unfortunately, there is diverse range of covert listening and tracking devices available from both mainstream and speciality retailers. They include listening devices that look like everyday products like an extension cord, iPhone charge, or carbon monoxide detector. The items function properly as you would expect, but they also incorporate a listening device.
Not surprisingly, this type of technology is posing an increasing challenge to criminal justice agencies, victim support groups, and domestic abuse charities. In the changing kaleidoscope of emerging technologies, they simply have neither the resources nore the technologists to to support the overwhelming numbers of digital victims coming forward already. That is why the Digital-Trust was founded to specifically help victims of digital abuse and provide a central resource of continually updated specialist advice to those organisations that work with them.
The majority of current online safety information helps protect computers or reduce fraud. It isn’t as helpful for victims of abuse. “It is like giving victims travelling on the underground advice on how not to be pick-pocketed, when what they should be worried about is someone pushing them in front of a train” said Jennifer Perry, CEO of the Digital-Trust.
But if technology is the problem, it is also the answer. One of the key remits of the Digital-Trust is to not only identify the risks but to also help develop products that can help protect victims. “We look at technology from two points of view: 1) what risk does it pose, and 2) how can it protect or reassure victims,” says Jennifer Perry.
Harry Fletcher, Criminal Justice Director, Digital-Trust said, “There has been a massive increase in cybercrime in recent years fuelled by our love of Internet and mobile. This and the availability of surveillance and intrusive technology mean abusers have more access and information about their victims than ever before. It is essential we help victims to keep safe digitally.
Current advice for people who are a victim of abuse or suspect they are being monitored can be found at www.digital-trust.org.
By Jennifer Perry, Director and CEO, Digital-Trust
Bio: Jennifer has been campaigning for the last nine years on e-victim issues. She has over 20 years in the tech industry. She wrote the UK Guidelines on Digital Risks for victims of domestic violence and stalking in 2012. She has trained hundreds of police officers, social workers, DV professionals and probation officers on stalking and digital abuse. She was special Cyberstalking advisor to the NSS (Network for Surviving Stalking) has been running Digital-Stalking.Com on a voluntary basis for the past four years.