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The rise and risks of tech abuse

Posted on 20 May 2024

While many people consider their smartphones, health trackers and Netflix accounts essential to modern life, it's less commonly understood how easily technology can be used by perpetrators of abuse to control their victims.

A recent report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee highlighted the prevalence of "tech abuse" and how survivors of abuse have had technology manipulated against them as a tool of control.

In this piece, Kira Shaw and Sophie Kilminster will examine:

  • What is "tech abuse", and how prevalent is it?
  • The proliferation of "home security" tech, such as Ring doorbells, in domestic abuse
  • What are the "red flags" that a partner may be using tech as a form of control?
  • What steps should be taken to protect your online security?

What is 'tech abuse'?

Technology-facilitated abuse is where a perpetrator of abuse uses technology – either physical devices or access to the internet - to control, harass or intimidate someone. It can range from forcibly or secretly gaining access to a partner's device without their consent, exploiting tracking features or installing spyware. Perpetrators may go on to carry out psychological or economic abuse using this technology.

Control over access to the internet can be integral to tech abuse, and women, in particular, often leave Wi-Fi arrangements in the hands of those they trust. A joint study by domestic abuse charity Refuge and Avast, a home security specialist, found that just over half (64%) of women in the UK have shared admin control over the internet-connected devices in their homes with their partners and 18% of women said they have no control over the Wi-Fi settings in their home, but their partner or family member does.

Considering how integral the internet is to everyday life in the 21st century, the risks associated with the power to entirely disconnect someone from communicating with their friends, continuing their education or their job by being able to manipulate their internet access cannot be underestimated.

The role of 'home security' in domestic abuse

For many people, the increased use of technology in the home provides greater convenience and a sense of security. However, a home linked up with the latest tech can often increase a perpetrator's power to monitor and control their victim, with Refuge recently naming Ring doorbells and Amazon Alexas as two items of tech most frequently used by abusive partners to harm and exert control over their partners[1].

Video doorbells can be used to track when a survivor leaves the home, what they are wearing, who is visiting them and what they are having delivered. Abuse of this technology is not limited to perpetrators who live with the survivor, as devices can be hacked remotely, allowing non-resident abusers to have constant footage of a survivor's movements. The scale of this problem has prompted Refuge to publish a guide to ensuring one's Ring doorbell is secure[2].

Likewise, internal cameras akin to CCTV ostensibly installed for further 'security' can leave survivors under constant surveillance and strip them of privacy. A 2022 Women's Aid report on the experiences of survivors of tech abuse during the Covid lockdowns included quotes from survivors who 'had to find blind spots to look at my phone, so he couldn’t see me' when at home[3].

While some survivors have contemplated removing batteries from these devices, some have reported that such an act can be manipulated by perpetrators to suggest they are putting their children at risk by removing an element of home security and threatening to report the survivor to social services or the police[4].

While the knowledge of constant surveillance is deeply anxiety inducing, cameras disguised as regular household objects such as air fresheners are available in droves[5], meaning survivors may not even know that they are being watched. This, in turn, opens a survivor of abuse to the risk of having intimate images or videos taken of them using hidden cameras and then potentially being distributed by a perpetrator.

What are the 'red flags' that a partner may be using tech as a form of control?

Relationships can quickly and subtly become controlling. Technology abuse can happen over long periods and escalates over time. Some signs that a partner may be using tech as a form of control are obvious; others can be more manipulative and discreet. 

Early red flags of tech abuse include the perpetrator insisting on access to the survivor's devices and accounts, particularly when the survivor doesn’t have the same access to theirs. This may include access to phone calls and messages, social media, emails, the internet and financial accounts.

The perpetrator may become angry or act irrationally when their partner doesn’t respond to calls or messages immediately; or they may send constant unwanted messages or make frequent calls to 'check-up' on their partner.

Another red flag is where a perpetrator seeks to track their partners’ location. Location tracking can be done in a number of ways: through phones, social media or even cars. A short video made by the BBC in 2020 highlighted the risks that survivors face of being stalked by their abuser through the use of this technology[6].

Tech abuse is rarely the only form of abuse present in a relationship and may be combined with love bombing, gaslighting and other manipulative behaviour to make the survivor question their instincts and reactions.

Domestic abuse charities Equation[7] and Refuge[8] provide useful, in-depth information on recognising the signs of technology related abuse.

What steps should be taken to protect online security?

In May 2021, Refuge launched a Tech Safety Website[9], providing helpful guides and tips which are a helpful start to securing tech. These include:

Phone security basics, including setting up two factor authentication

Checking privacy settings and blocking or removing people if necessary on social media platforms

Restricting location settings on one's phone, apps and social media accounts

Changing passwords and login details on accounts which a partner or ex-partner may have access to.

However, for some people it might not always be safe or possible to take these steps, particularly not all at once. Many of the above tips can be implemented incrementally so as to avoid arousing a perpetrator's suspicion.

Refuge also has a 'Home Tech Tool'[10] which provides helpful information on how home devices, such as Amazon Alexa and Smart TVs, can be kept secure, as well as a 'Digital Break-Up Tool'[11] which shows how to review commonly used apps and help to secure each digital platform.

Although tech abuse has become increasingly common, education and awareness on this issue is also increasing. Dedicated charities are now providing survivors with the knowledge and skills to recognise and prevent tech abuse and the proliferation of toolkits and online guides freely available are helping to mitigate against the opportunities for abuse.

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