Spyware, Stalking and Surveillance: The Torture of Tech Abuse


Technology has revolutionised many aspects of modern life, bringing with it new possibilities for connection, education and entertainment. However, there is a darker side to these technological advancements. For victims of domestic abuse, technology can be a double-edged sword – both a powerful tool for perpetrators of abuse, as well as a lifeline for those seeking support and escape.

Spying and Surveillance

One of the most insidious ways abusers misuse technology is for spying and surveillance of their victims. Apps and tools allow abusers to monitor their victim’s communications, track their location, remotely activate microphones and cameras on phones and laptops, and spy on internet browsing history.

Spyware apps are readily available online and relatively cheap to purchase, with many marketed as tools for monitoring children or employees. However, in the hands of an abusive partner, they provide frightening levels of access and control.

Some spyware can even bypass normal security measures, operating in a hidden mode that makes it almost impossible to detect by the average user.

Experts warn that spying of this nature is a violation of privacy and deeply undermining to victims, destroying their sense of autonomy and freedom. It is a powerful intimidation tactic and form of coercive control.

Cutting Off Communication

Abusers may also use technology to control and cut off their victim’s communication with friends, family and support services.

By monitoring emails, texts and social media messages, the abuser isolates the victim from their network, seeing communication as a threat to their control. Passwords to accounts may be demanded, and messages deleted without the victim’s knowledge.

With greater understanding of its risks, technology can instead provide hope for victims of domestic abuse, not just new avenues for their exploitation. Share on X

Geo-fencing features in some apps alert abusers when their victim enters or leaves a certain location, like a women’s shelter or a friend’s house. The abuser can then punish them for violating restrictions on their movement.

For victims in remote areas, loss of communication can be life threatening if they are unable to call for help or access support. Indigenous women’s advocates have raised this issue in rural communities.

Digital Harassment and Abuse

In addition to surveillance, perpetrators also use technology to continue their harassment and abuse when the victim is away from the home. Abusive calls, texts, emails and social media messages are common.

Image-based sexual abuse, where sexually explicit photos are shared online without consent, is another form of technology-enabled abuse. Victims describe the profound violation when intimate images meant only for a trusted partner are instead broadcast to family, friends and colleagues.

Distressing messages may also be sent impersonating the victim, damaging relationships with those close to them.

For youth victims of dating violence, abuse increasingly takes place over text, social media and other digital channels. Cyber-stalking by ex-partners is also an emerging issue. The harassment continues from any location, allowing no safe space for the victim.

A Lifeline for Victims

However amid these bleak trends, technology has also been a lifeline for many victims of domestic violence. It opens up new avenues for finding support, safety planning and ultimately escaping abuse.

Support networks and online counselling through instant messaging offer an invaluable lifeline to isolated victims. Women’s aid chat services have expanded in recent years, with some available 24/7. At times where a phone call is unsafe, victims can discreetly reach out for help.

GPS-enabled smartphones allow victims to discretely access emergency services when in danger. Apps like Hollie Guard in the UK activate audio and video recording with an inconspicuous shake of the phone. Evidence can then support police intervention and prosecution.

Secure messaging apps like WhatsApp offer safer communication channels away from an abuser’s watchful eye. Important documents and messages can be hidden in vault apps or cloud storage.

And crucially, online resources have empowered victims to learn about abusive behaviours and legal options. Knowledge is power, and victims accessing this information online are able to recognise abuse, safety plan and prepare to leave dangerous situations.

What More Can Be Done?

While advancements in technology have expanded support networks for victims, more still needs to be done to clamp down on abusive uses of technology.

Women’s advocates argue spyware apps should be regulated more tightly, with heavy penalties for those enabling stalking and abuse. Tech companies arguably also have an ethical obligation in blocking perpetrators from using their services and platforms for harassment.

Police training around technology-enabled abuse needs to be expanded, so coercive control involving digital surveillance or harassment is properly recognised in law.

And most importantly, public awareness of technology’s role in domestic violence must be improved. Abusers rely on digital tactics staying in the shadows – only by shining a light can society start to address this issue.

Technology will no doubt continue rapidly evolving. The challenge is ensuring new innovations empower rather than endanger vulnerable individuals. With greater understanding of its risks, technology can instead provide hope for victims of domestic abuse, not just new avenues for their exploitation.

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