Without a doubt, technology has facilitated human habits and day-to-day tasks, even the not-so-honest ones. Unfortunately, in recent years, these digital tools have helped amplify, aggravate and transform domestic abuse.
The University of Portsmouth in the UK conducted a government-supported study called Computer Misuse as a Facilitator of Domestic Abuse. They reviewed 146 domestic abuse reports from British and international media outlets, and conducted interviews with charity workers and police officers on these cases. The research confirmed that many abusers had exploited their victims' electronic devices to install spyware to blackmail or humiliate them.
Every move you make, every step you take...
Nowadays, there are hundreds of devices and pieces of geolocation software that wrongdoers could use to carry out abusive or criminal acts. Worse still, the information on their usage and supply is available online – a simple Google search will tell you everything you need to know about their setup and use. Anyone could buy this equipment and learn how to stalk and spy on people within a day. Not to mention, new surveillance devices and spyware programs are created every day, continuously providing abusers with new ways to surveil their victims.
Portsmouth University's research confirmed that tracking apps designed for legitimate purposes, such as locating a child or anti-theft protection, are being misused more and more often. A number of cases have been reported where these apps were used to cyber-stalk or control a partner (or ex-partner). For that reason, many studies are now referring to them as dual-use apps.
Tracking apps are widely available to purchase on legitimate sites and app stores. The use of them doesn't require any real level of IT proficiency, and a perpetrator could install them without the victim's knowledge. One Avast survey found that there has been a 93% increase in the use of stalkerware in the UK since the Covid-19 pandemic started.
Covert monitoring devices – Apple Airtag
Similar things are happening with tracking devices that weren't intended to monitor people but rather aid in the search for lost objects – such as Apple's AirTags. These small Bluetooth devices were originally designed to keep track of luggage, keys, and similar portable and easily lost belongings. All you needed to do was to pair them with the Find My app on your iPhone, and it would show you the current location of the item.
Unfortunately, stalkers started exploiting these too. They would drop AirTags into the bags or cars of their victims and use the app to follow them. The BBC even called AirTags "a perfect tool for stalking". Following these allegations, Apple introduced anti-stalking protection, which would sound an alarm and send notifications to all nearby iPhones to signal the presence of AirTags in the vicinity.
However, shortly after this, a Berlin-based infosec startup announced that it had built an Apple Airtag clone that could bypass Apple's anti-stalking protection. They published the source code for the clone online claiming that they "successfully tracked an iPhone user for over five days without triggering a tracking notification". The user in this project was a volunteer, and the experiment was conducted to show the shortcomings of Apple's current anti-stalking protection.
Other tracking devices
Unfortunately, the story doesn't end with tracking apps and devices... that's only the beginning. More "creative" stalkers have been reported using security cameras, smart locks, networked TV, sound systems, and even thermostats as equipment to monitor, control, and terrify victims.
Some would sneak into cloud-based voice services, past conversations, images, and similar data to gain insights into victims' whereabouts. Alternatively, they would use this information as material for emotional extortion or blackmail.
Revenge porn and other types of emotional harassment
The study continued by describing ways in which violators use fake social media accounts to abuse their (ex) partners by presenting them in a derogatory manner, or threatening to do so. Unfortunately, this is a gray area under the law. Hacking someone's account is a serious criminal offense, but impersonating an individual to create a fake account is not considered a breach of the law – despite many instances when this has led to harassment. People setting up fraudulent social media profiles of their ex-partners and summoning strangers to their houses (with made-up fantasies and contact details revealed in the profiles) are just some of these instances.
Image-based sexual abuse is another common type of harassment. Threats to release intimate photos or videos are one tactic used to frighten victims and gain control over them. Some perpetrators would set up fake social media profiles to post intimate photos of their victims or would even send the images directly to family, friends, and employers.
The term "revenge porn" refers to the distribution of nude images by ex-lovers, whose motivations can range from revenge or retribution to blackmail and extortion. The worst part is, once shared, the focus moves to the content of these images, the victims are put in the spotlight, and not enough scrutiny is given to the abusive actions of the ones who uploaded the content.
One of the charity workers involved in the project admitted that institutions are aware that domestic violence takes place, but currently all their efforts are concentrated on finding shelters, support officers, social workers, etc. to deal with physical, verbal, and emotional abuse and to save people from dangerous situations.
But when you talk about a phone and other digital devices, I don't think we're there yet.
Although tracking technology has been with us for decades now, most legal systems around the world have not kept pace with changes in technology. It's obvious that more accurate definitions and classifications of domestic abuse are needed in the UK and worldwide. Hopefully then, we can talk about putting support services in place, with professionals trained and equipped to deal with all types of domestic abuse, including the technological ones.