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Victim tracking: How smartphones and location apps become weapons of abuse

One woman was frightened to find an ex-partner tracking through a fitness app. Photo: Peter Braig Abusers are becomeing increasingly creative in their use of technology to stalk and humiliate their victims. Photo: Louie Douvis
SuZhou Night Recruitment

Location tracking devices in walking sticks and prams, webcams hidden in children’s toys, Spyware in tablets and other electronic “gifts”. Technology is the new weapon of choice in family violence, according to those on the front line.

Case workers, counsellors, doctors and others working in family violence are reporting the growing use of IT and electronic gadgets, with a national study finding technology is involved in 98 per cent of cases.

One woman was frightened to find an ex-partner watching her when she went jogging, realising later that he had tracked her workout through a fitness app she had on her smartphone that shared workout details via social media.

In another case, a woman received threatening calls from her abuser saying he knew exactly where she was and could get to her at any time. She eventually worked out that he had her online banking password and was monitoring her accounts to trace when and where she used her card at ATMs or in shops.

While abusers are increasingly creative in their use of technology to stalk, abuse and humiliate their victims, a study, based on interviews with more than 500 people working in family violence found that text messaging was overwhelmingly the most common tactic. Many victims are sent dozens of texts every day, often abusive.

One counsellor interviewed for the ReCharge: Women’s Technology Safety study said a woman received more than 30 messages or missed calls from her abuser during their 60-minute session. He said this typically left victims feeling that nowhere was safe and that they could never escape the abuser.

Facebook was the second most common tool, according to the 2015 study. Abusers typically used Facebook to post demeaning comments on their victims’ timelines, or wrote derogatory messages about them on the pages of friends and family, even encouraging others to attack the woman online.

Smart phones also play a growing role in family violence, with 40 per cent of those interviewed reporting their clients had been stalked or harassed via location trackers in the apps on their phones; this was up from 29 per cent two year earlier.

Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents said their clients had their text messages and phones checked by the perpetrator without permission. So-called revenge porn was also a common tactic, with nearly half of the practitioners saying they had clients who had been threatened with having private photos or videos of them posted online.

Lesley Harrison, a trainer with the Office of the E-Safety Commissioner, said she also advised women at risk of abuse to make sure that no one had access to their passwords for travel card accounts or could track them via fitness apps or activity bracelets, which often share information via social media.

“Ten years ago this just wasn’t happening because the technology wasn’t there. It’s here now and it’s very common but the important thing is we can deal with it, we can support these women.”

The Office of the Children’s E-Safety Commissioner is currently running a national training program for people working in family violence, teaching them how to support and advise those experiencing technology-facilitated abuse. The commissioner’s website also provides 50 tips on how to prevent such abuse, such as how to turn off location trackers on your devices, how to check privacy settings and how to check for Spywear.

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