What is Digital Abuse?

By: Rebecca Lynn

Technology has become a staple in our lives, one that is required in one way or another to complete many day-to-day activities. In a world where people are pressured to get as much done as possible in the least amount of time, while still having enough time to focus on family and friends, technological advances can offer huge advantages.

With new technology comes new ways to help keep people safe. Computers, phones, and tablets with valuable data can be tracked if lost or stolen. You can automatically sync and view pictures, files, and important links on all of your accessible devices, saving time and securing information if one of the devices is no longer available. In the event of an emergency or kidnapping, parents can monitor or track their children. Phones can be used to remotely control the alarm system to your house, tell you who opens the door, and, notify you when motion is sensed or someone is at the door via cameras mounted with doorbells. 

However, the very technology that is used to keep people safe is also one of the most dangerous tools exploited to stalk, control, harass, and track down domestic violence victims and survivors. Digital abuse uses technology to further isolate, threaten, gaslight, and intimidate victims.

Domestic abuse comes in a variety of forms, and digital abuse is no less important than emotional, physical, or financial abuse. In fact, digital abuse can contribute to the escalation of all of these, and is prevalent in nearly all current or former domestic abuse relationships. As technology advances, so does the number of devices that can be used by a perpetrator to control their victim. According to Kurtz & Blum and The Stalking Resource Center, here are some of the ways that technology can be used to stalk and digitally abuse:

Computers and Internet

  • If a stalker has access to the victim’s computer, they can easily install spyware that can provide them with copies of each keystroke, website visited, conversations, passwords, and emails sent by the victim.
  • The perpetrator can use community websites to advertise, post inappropriate information, pictures, revenge porn, and personal data about the victim.  
  • Spyware and covert apps can make it possible for a stalker to access a computer’s camera to view and hear the victim.

Emails 

  • Stalkers can fill inboxes with unwanted spam, emails, and viruses simply by knowing an email address.  
  • Abusers can send threatening emails. 
  • According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, emails are like postcards and can be easily intercepted. 

Social Media

  • Social Media can be used in many ways to intimidate and spread personal and false information that could impact family relationships and jobs.
  • Social Media accounts can be hacked, or opened under the victim’s name, allowing the stalker to take over their identity. 

Phones

  • Using a smart-phone to remotely change passwords, locks to the victims house, car, change thermostat settings, turn on lights, speakers, or TV’s to harass the victim and cause sleep deprivation.  
  • Caller ID spoofing is able to change the phone number that shows up on the victim’s phone to any desired number.
  • Stalkers are able to send threatening texts and making unwanted calls. 
  • Phones can be tapped so that stalkers can spy and eavesdrop on conversations.  

 Apps

  • Simple legitimate apps, often referred to as “dual apps”, since they can be used for practical use, or to monitor victims, often go undetected. These apps are often free, and accessible to anyone.  Apps such as Find my Phone and Google Maps, shared phone, bank, or internet accounts with the perpetrator, or remote security systems can all be used to stalk a victim. 
  • Many apps advertised to keep track of children, are often used to do the same with domestic violence victims. Some of these apps are Family Tracker for iPad and Find my Kids – Footprints.
  • Some apps are more obvious, such as Secret Agent and Sneaky Cam, which are both equipped with thermal camera features, and ways to take pictures unnoticed. In addition, Spouseware is used to specifically monitor intimate partners without their consent. 
  • Smart App Lock is a commonly used app by perpetrators to securely lock and disguise features on their phone from their victims. Most victims are unable to password protect their devices in fear of upsetting their abusers, yet the perpetrators phone is secure, and unable to be accessed. 

GPS

  • Using a smart-phone, GPS, or tracking device placed on a car, or in a purse to know at all times where the victim is located and has been. 
  • Spyware and tracking devices have advanced so that they can be used in nearly any item without the knowledge of the victim. In addition, many of the devices are now able to alert the perpetrator if the device has been removed.  

Cameras 

  • Camera technology has advanced so that they are small enough to be put in alarm clocks, teddy bears, purses, etc., allowing perpetrators remote viewing and audio at all times. 
  • Spyware allows cameras to be operated remotely using a victim’s phone, computer, Ring, or other security system that accesses a camera. 

Digital abuse is yet another form of stalking, one that creates fear, helplessness, and a real concern for safety. A stalking fact sheet compiled the University of Kentucky’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research notes that 5.2 million women and 1.4 million men are stalked each year. Advancing technology makes digital abuse difficult to control. Not all spyware or monitoring systems require that the perpetrator have physical access to the device they are tracking, making it difficult to catch and prove the actions of digital abuse. Stalking requires detailed and evidence-based documentation in order to track down and discontinue apps that make stalking easy to do, yet difficult to recognize.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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