From online stalking to spy cameras, abuse of women via technology is soaring – with devastating consequences. Anna Moore investigates
As far as Amy Aldworth was concerned, the date had been a success. She’d matched with a man on an app who was charming and chatty.
He worked in a bank and seemed, says Amy, ‘nice and really normal’. They got on well, there was chemistry and one thing led to another…
This was summer 2020, as we emerged from lockdown with many people looking for fun and connections. After that first date, Amy and her match exchanged more messages and he asked about her sexual health. When had she last been tested for STDs? ‘I tried to reassure him that it was in the past six months and everything had been negative,’ says Amy who is 26 and works in a London pharmacy. But his concern very quickly escalated for no apparent reason and with no trigger.
‘It went from a normal conversation you might have with someone you’ve slept with to him having HIV symptoms – he said he was in bed with fever and joint pain – and telling me it was my fault.’
Within days, the abusive messages were pouring in by text and WhatsApp, saying things such as, ‘What disease do you have? Tell me the f***ing truth,’ and Amy received 17 calls to her phone in three hours. The man also rang her place of work repeatedly. There was no trigger for this escalation – no tension or exchange about seeing each other, no rejection. ‘It was petrifying,’ says Amy. ‘I thought maybe he had HIV and was trying to blame me.’
Amy decided to go for a full sexual health screening, which came back clear, and sent him the results. ‘I thought it might make him back off but it didn’t – it made it ten times worse,’ she says. Now this man was calling her a liar and accused her of sending someone else to be tested in her name to hide her true HIV status.
Amy changed her number, but instead he found her social media accounts. Each time she blocked him on Instagram or Facebook, more messages from new accounts would come. He began to message her friends and even contacted her mother to tell her she should be disgusted with her daughter, asking how could she ‘bring someone up to act like this’. ‘He knew where I lived, he knew where I worked. I was scared to go anywhere on my own in case he appeared,’ says Amy. ‘Everywhere I went, I wondered if he’d be round the corner. My anxiety was so bad, I was having panic attacks where I couldn’t catch my breath. I was taking a lot of time off work. I left London for a bit to stay with my mum. It was always in my mind – it’s all-consuming.’
When Amy turned to her GP, she was prescribed anxiety medication and referred to the domestic abuse charity Refuge, which runs the only specialist tech abuse team in the UK. This service was started in 2017 as Refuge became increasingly aware that perpetrators of abuse were using technology as a powerful weapon. In fact, 98 per cent of the women who turn to Refuge have experienced some sort of tech abuse within their case.
The scope is mind-boggling, says Refuge CEO Ruth Davison. ‘Technology is part of every aspect of life so abuse can take many different forms,’ she says. ‘At one end there’s stalking online, bombarding victims with unwanted messages and harassing them on social media. At its most dangerous end, there’s installing malicious spyware to track someone’s movements, to intercept them, harm them – even kill them. On top of that are the more insidious, unexpected aspects,’ she continues. ‘Mimicking someone’s account and sending out messages pretending to be that person to sabotage their work, their friends, to isolate them.
‘It sounds dystopian but we’ve known perpetrators to use technology to control someone’s heating from outside the house so they can’t be warm. Wiring their homes to listen in or planting listening devices in toys they give to children. The scale is huge.’
The pandemic and accompanying reliance on the internet has made it far worse. ‘Within days of lockdown, we saw a huge increase in tech abuse,’ says Sarah Davidge, research and evaluation manager at Women’s Aid. ‘With the shift to working from home, people were contacting us because abusive partners were changing the wifi passwords or destroying laptops so they couldn’t work.’
The Cost of Covid-19 report by the charity Surviving Economic Abuse found that online living made victims particularly vulnerable. The shift from cash to card payments made it possible for abusers to monitor and track someone’s spending – or work out where they were. When banks were shut in lockdown and went entirely online, it became easier to take out loans or create debt in a partner’s name. According to research by Refuge, complex tech abuse cases– those that involve high-level stalking, spyware, tracking devices and images being circulated on numerous platforms rose by 97 per cent in the first year of lockdown (from April 2020 to May 2021), and they’re still growing.
‘Technology doesn’t create abusers,’ says Davison, ‘but it has given them more tools.’ Gemma*, 45, is all too aware of the scope of harassment that tech makes possible. Though her husband of eight years was not physically violent, he shouted, smashed things and threw his weight around when he lost his temper. But mostly he controlled Gemma through other means. He destroyed her confidence with constant criticism and mockery. He froze out her friends by claiming they had made passes at him when really it was the other way round.
READ MORE: How lockdown has affected domestic abuse
Gemma was a talented artist, but he made it impossible for her to work. If she sketched in the day, he told her she was neglecting the children. If she sketched in the evening, she was neglecting their marriage. He gaslit her – hiding her bank cards and her jewellery so she began to question her sanity. And he installed spyware in a laptop that he left on permanent charge in their bedroom.
It was in the bedroom that Gemma confided on the phone to her one trusted friend about her plans to leave – she had been secretly moving belongings to the garage over a period of three months so she could pack a van at a moment’s notice. But her husband was watching her from his place of work and was able to rush home, crying and begging Gemma to stay, promising to change.
Although Gemma did eventually move out and begin to rebuild her life, her ex continued to use technology to stalk and sabotage her life. ‘He gave our son an iPhone, which seemed ridiculous as he was only six, and put all these wonderful apps on it that my son wanted to play,’ she says.
From that point on, her ex seemed to appear wherever they went. In a restaurant for lunch. Ice skating in a neighbouring city. Christmas shopping in the town centre. ‘I didn’t know how or why it was happening. He’d say something like, “Fancy seeing you here.” I was jittery all the time, constantly on edge,’ says Gemma. ‘Sometimes we’d get back to our car in a multistorey car park and my ex’s black Mercedes would be parked right next to it.’
After several months, Gemma realised her son’s phone was linked to her ex’s account and set to notify him when it left the home location, complete with a tracking device.
‘I had to persuade my son to leave the phone at home whenever we went anywhere.’ When it came to launching her career as an artist – which Gemma has now done, very successfully – she found that her ex had bought all combinations of her name so she couldn’t use it as a domain. ‘Apparently, it’s called cybersquatting,’ says Gemma. ‘For him, technology gave him a massive sense of power and control.’
What can be done to even begin to tackle this? ‘There’s a lot we can do ourselves,’ says Davison. ‘Empowering women and giving them the tools – simple stuff on how to recognise when someone could be tracking them, for example, and how to secure their network. But, ultimately, we need legislative change,’ she continues. ‘It shouldn’t be up to organisations such as Refuge or women themselves to manage this issue. We need products and platforms to be safe by design from the very outset – and we need regulation that compels the tech giants to support complaints from women about tech abuse, to liaise with the police and to take preventative action themselves.’
Davison gives one basic example of the broken system. ‘Women often call our tech abuse team because we have “trusted flagger status” which means we can go to a social media platform and say, “You must take this content down, it’s abusive”. First of all, why on earth can’t women do this themselves? Second, sometimes we’re unable to have it removed because the abuse is insidious. A picture of your front door when you’ve escaped your abuser and started a new life is a threat, a message; it’s utterly terrifying – but to tech platforms, it doesn’t breach any community standards. Even when a post is obviously offensive, the best outcome we can get is to have it removed. That abuser is not silenced. The account isn’t suspended. The next day, the post can be put back up and the cycle continues.’
The Online Safety Bill, currently at draft stage, is expected to be debated in parliament early this year – the next stage towards becoming law. This could be a golden opportunity to force tech companies to accept responsibility for how their products and platforms are used. At present, the bill mentions child exploitation and terrorism, but there aren’t any specific recommendations for the issues of violence against women and girls.
READ MORE: The impact of lockdown on domestic abuse
That’s our big, top-line ask,’ says Davison. ‘It’s great that we have all these new tools, these brilliant innovations, but we need to think about how they can be used if someone wants to harm you. Tech giants have not kept up with that.’ Refuge is also calling for more training for the police, and sufficient funding to enable it to tackle this growing issue.
In Amy’s case, the police were initially unhelpful. ‘When I first called them, I was really upset, I couldn’t stop crying and an officer came to my house, took a statement and asked me to forward all the messages,’ she says. ‘But after a couple of weeks, I was told there was not enough evidence to take further action.’ In the end, the Refuge Tech Team helped her manage the harassment. ‘They were amazing,’ she says. ‘An advocate helped me secure my phone, I went through all the settings on my social media. My Facebook profile was already on “Friend Request” but there are other settings with higher security. My advocate called every week to check if I’d received more messages and what accounts they were coming from.’
It was only when both Amy and her mother complained to the Independent Office for Police Conduct that her case was reopened. Amy continued to report every new message sent to her or her friends and four months after the abuse began the perpetrator was finally arrested. Last January, faced with 90 pieces of photographic evidence, he pleaded guilty to harassment and received a 12-month community order and a restraining order. He hasn’t contacted Amy since his arrest.
‘I still don’t understand why he did it or what his reason was,’ she says. ‘We met on a dating app –I wonder how many people he has done this to? Is he still on the app meeting new people?’
Having taken a course of strong anxiety medication and had six weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy, the whole experience has left its mark. ‘It has completely changed how I look at things,’ Amy says. ‘I’m not confident about using dating apps any more –I just don’t feel they protect women enough, and that scares me. For a while I couldn’t go on my phone and even now, when I get a text from someone I don’t have saved, or a notification from Facebook that I have a message, I get this jolt of, “Oh God, who’s that?” It never goes away.’
Still, she knows that she is fortunate. Her abuser was prosecuted. His harassment has stopped. ‘In that sense I feel quite lucky,’ says Amy. ‘I got my conviction. Most people don’t.’
For free 24-hour help and support contact the Refuge National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 or access digital support via live chat Monday to Friday from 3pm to 10pm at nationaldahelpline.org.uk. For support with tech abuse visit refugetechsafety.org
GETTY IMAGES. ARTWORK: ELLIE ALLEN-ESLOR