Victims are kept under control by technology, which then often triggers further physical and psychological abuse. Picture: Stock
Victims are kept under control by technology, which then often triggers further physical and psychological abuse. Picture: Stock

New intrusive way Aussie women are being stalked

WOMEN fleeing domestic abuse are being stalked by their partners through evolving spy and "stalkerware" apps in what authorities have warned is a worrying misuse of technology that makes escape virtually impossible.

Seemingly innocuous software such as Gmail, Find My Friends, Facebook, Life360, Snapchat and employee monitoring apps are now being widely misused for stalking ex-partners.

Smartphone technology has also given domestic violence perpetrators a cutting-edge toolbox with to stalk and kept under surveillance by cheaply available purpose-built spy apps and stalkerware specifically designed to catch a cheating spouse or wayward child.

Victims of tech-facilitated violence are being kept under surveillance, long after they have physically fled their abusers. Picture: Supplied
Victims of tech-facilitated violence are being kept under surveillance, long after they have physically fled their abusers. Picture: Supplied

These apps run without noticeable detection signs and allow abusers to access their target's geolocation, intercept text messages and emails, record sound and video and live-hack the phone camera and photographs.

Policing of the technology falls to state-based police under stalking and harassment legislation but frontline officers according to domestic violence experts claim they are failing to recognise the seriousness of technology-based offences.

"Police sometimes don't have the resources or expertise to follow up on some of these forms of violence," said Emily Maguire, CEO of Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. "It's more difficult to police because it's harder to detect."

The Australian Federal Police said the matter was not under their carriage and referred to the Australian Cyber Security Centre, which could not offer comment but pointed to generic online brochures about staying safe online.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority said they did not have any relevant information but referred to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, which said that although these apps are not regulated, they addressed the issue through workshops with frontline domestic violence workers and online resources.

 

Amber is a victim of tech-facilitated domestic violence who suffers from severe anxiety as a result. Picture: Heidi Lewis
Amber is a victim of tech-facilitated domestic violence who suffers from severe anxiety as a result. Picture: Heidi Lewis

Karen Bentley, National Director of the SafetyNet Australia program for WESNET, which examines the intersection between technology and domestic violence and provides "clean" replacement phones to victims, said surveilling a victim was quite difficult before smartphones.

"You'd have to buy a device from a spyware shop and magnetically stick it on the bottom of something and you'd have to go back and get it and recharge it and download the data onto computer whereas now with the GPS in the smart phone it's a lot easier now - there's all sorts of amazing apps that help us keep track of our loved ones and our belongings but you're always going to have bad actors."

Until recently, spyware applications could be installed on a victim's phone within about 15 minutes if the abuser had physical access to the phone - most often while the victim slept - but the phone would need to be "rooted" or "jailbroken" to allow apps blocked by the app store to be installed.

However, last year spy apps emerged that are able to be installed remotely, without jailbreaking the phone, provided perpetrators know a victim's Apple ID and password.

After fleeing her abuser in July, 2018, single mother Amber (last name withheld) suffers from severe anxiety, PTSD symptoms and intense paranoia due to tech-facilitated violence which began during an 18 month relationship.

After an explosive argument one day, Amber was at her mother's house and googled "narcissist" on her phone. Within seconds, her partner texted her a screen grab showing her conducting the internet search.

"Nice," he wrote.

Victims are kept under control by technology, which then often triggers further physical and psychological abuse. Picture: Stock
Victims are kept under control by technology, which then often triggers further physical and psychological abuse. Picture: Stock

Her abuser was able to read her emails, hack her passwords, install a hidden keystroke app on her computer which would send him data records of every key pressed, and stalked her whereabouts using her phone's location sharing settings.

During her sleep one night he used a program to retrieve all deleted photographs, text messages and call records from her smartphone.

When he discovered messages from a male friend, he doused Amber and the house in acetone and threatened to set her alight.

"He said there's a backdoor to everything if you know what you're doing," said Amber.