smartphone, domestic violence, technology

Most of us own one and use it every day.  We often feel ‘naked’ without it and panic if we can’t find it.  But what was intended for good has become a tool for harm – the smartphone.

Violent partners are increasingly using a smartphone, activity trackers and social media apps to threaten or harass and even track down their victims.  Research shows that there are more and more domestic violence perpetrators using smartphone technology and they are getting better at it.  So much so that a new website, eSafetyWomen — created by the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner, the Women’s Services Network and the Department of Social Services — has been developed to encourage women to take control of the technology in their lives.

The website was only launched last month and warns victims of some of the dangers of technology, which is not limited to a smartphone.  Included in this are things like fitness trackers and smart watches that record exercise times and routes as well as sleep patterns. “It could be a particular risk if an ex-partner gains access to this information or uses a child’s device to track a family” the website says. The site will enable victims to do a check so that they can use technology more safely, further protecting themselves from an abuser.

Alastair MacGibbon, the Children’s eSafety Commissioner,  said one in six Australian women have experienced violence from a current or former partner, with most cases involving the use of technology. “While explaining the risks, eSafetyWomen also shows how technology can be used positively, to protect women against their abusers,” he said.

The Bad

A recent senate inquiry into domestic violence was told that victims are not just being harrassed with phone calls and texts, but can be tracked through GPS, phone location apps, Facebook smartphone, domestic violenceentries and other ways, all through a smartphone.  The Women’s Services Network chairwoman Julie Oberin also told the inquiry last week a perpetrator would, in some cases, secretly download spyware onto their partner’s smartphone, which enabled them to read emails and texts, see who they talked to and what they were searching on the internet. They could also potentially use the smartphone to listen in on conversations. The domestic violence challenge has been changing with these developments.  Ms Oberin said that she first noticed this when women she was putting in safe houses in regional Victoria started to be found by their ex partners.

“We had one particular case where two of our clients were on a bus going from the refuge to the shopping centre,”she said. “When the bus pulled up at a bus stop, the partner of one of the women got on and started ordering her back home. He wasn’t even supposed to know that she was in that town.” Ms Oberin and her colleagues worked out that the woman had been found through her smartphone. “That was pretty scary for us as refuge workers to realise that this is a brave new world.”

Both domestic violence workers and a Women’s Legal Service Solicitor (Alex Davis) said that smartphones are a factor in about 80% of victims they see.  Different questions are now being asked at some family violence services such as:  Who set up your smartphone?  Who has access to your passwords?

When women first present for support they are being asked to put their smartphones into flight mode as a precaution.

Cindy Southworth, a US domestic violence and technology expert emphasised that the smartphone technology does not cause abuse, it just facilities it. “Essentially, it is misogyny plus technology equals high-tech stalking.”

Tips for smartphone security:

Lock your phone with a code and do not share it with anyone.

Turn off the GPS on your phone.

Turn off Bluetooth on your phone when not in use.

Avoid buying a “jail-broken” phone (that has removed the manufacturer’s restrictions) as this will be much more vulnerable to spyware.

If you think you are being monitored by a partner:

It may be dangerous to change your behaviours, such as suddenly deleting your history, as an abuser may become suspicious.

Use a safer device – such as a library computer – to research an escape plan.

The Good

The answer is not to discourage victims from using technology, but rather to embrace and use it wisely.  They have the right to be able to continue using the same technology as everyone else. The 1800RESPECT website, funded by the Australian Government and operated by Medibank, advises victims of abuse how to mask their research online, which otherwise may tip off an abusive smartphone, technology, domestic violencepartner to efforts to seek help or leave a relationship.  They provide a ‘quick exit’ button, which keeps their research hidden if their abuser walks in. 1800RESPECT goes straight to a blank Google search page if that button is hit.

In fact, it’s not just websites but apps that are being created to help domestic violence victims.  There is a NSW Government app called Aurora which has been downloaded almost 7000 times, with users contacting police 472 times and asking a contact to pick them up with a pre-programmed message 399 times.  The app enables the victim to call emergency services or a pre-arranged contact if they need help.  It masks the the user’s search history and does not appear in the call history. “Research has shown that smartphone technology can be an effective source of assistance for women fleeing domestic violence situations as often they only take their immediate personal belongings, including mobile phones,” a Women NSW spokeswoman said.

There is another app called the Daisy app which provides information on legal services, housing and finance services and children’s services. It allows domestic violence victims to access resources on the move.  Technology has its dangers, but it offers help and freedom when used wisely.

If you need emergency assistance, then please call ‘000’.

For a free, 10-minute phone conversation with one of our caring and experienced family lawyers please contact us today.