Instances of tech abuse are rising, and more victims of domestic violence are suffering from it each year. Here is what family lawyers should know about it.
By Kerry Smith, Family Lawyer
It is a sad fact that abuse in the home is on the rise, and perpetrators are now finding new ways in which to inflict it. Tech abuse is becoming a frightening form of domestic abuse that uses in-home devices to inflict pain and anguish. Technology that should improve our lives is now being used against victims to bully, harass and harm them as part of an attempt to exert power and control every aspect of their lives.
As tech abuse grows, people must know what it is and how to recognize it. In this article, we have looked at what tech abuse is, what form it takes and what we can do about it to keep people safe from the abusers who think it is acceptable to inflict this on another person.
What is Tech Abuse?
Tech abuse can take many forms, but it essentially uses the technology we all now have in our lives to monitor victims, threaten them, and cause pain. It often coincides with physical or emotional abuse, and gives the abuser new ways to continue with what they do inside the home. It is believed that one in four women and one in six men will experience violence from their partners at some point during their lifetimes.
One example of tech abuse is to install spyware onto the victim’s phone to track what they are doing, or to impersonate them on social media to cause them some form of humiliation. They may access bank accounts to track and control what their victims are spending or access calendars to see where they are supposed to be and turn up when they are not invited. Some abusers have even been found to have given children electronics that allow them to be tracked even after they have fled from the abusive parent.
Tech Abuse Isolates Victims
Technology is a huge part of almost everybody’s lives, so it was only a matter of time before it was turned against others. All forms of domestic abuse center around allowing the abuser to have power over a partner, and technology gives them this ability.
Sadly, text abuse has not been subject to vast amounts of research yet, but it is thought that phones, tablets, social media, and computers have all been commonly used. Smart home technology is also now becoming a feature, as abusers control things like heating systems or watch movement on doorbell cameras.
Tech abuse can also isolate victims by taking these forms of technology away from them and cutting them off from the outside world. The perpetrator can then control where they go, when they can go out, and exactly what they can do without the ability to seek support from friends and family. Some victims are forced to share passwords to accounts by threatening them with physical harm. Once an abuser has this, they can see messages and even block and delete contacts they do not approve of.
Often, the abuse is more covert, with many victims not knowing that their devices have been compromised. You might think your partner needs to be tech-savvy to carry this out, but it is surprisingly easy. If you are close to someone, guessing passwords or gaining access to a device that has accidentally been left unlocked becomes easier.
New Laws to Govern Tech Abuse
Although we are in the early days of understanding tech abuse, the British government is already taking action. A law has now been passed that makes it illegal to use technology to track or spy on partners or ex-partners. It is formally recognized as domestic abuse thanks to its controlling and coercive behavior.
All U.S. states (except for Massachusetts and South Carolina), the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam have already passed bans on distributing nonconsensual pornographic images (learn more about protections in your state here). A proposed new federal law, amending the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), would see offenders face up to two years in prison for each person whose nude or sexualized images they distribute without consent.
In March 2015, the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act took effect. This Act amends the Criminal Code and the Canada Evidence Act to provide protection from the distribution of intimate images without consent, online bullying, and sexual predation. It also amends the Canada Evidence Act to ensure that someone who distributed nude images of their spouse without consent is a compellable witness for the prosecution.
Other countries such as France, Slovenia, Poland, Italy, Ireland, Austria, and Estonia are all putting together laws based around stalking, cyberbullying, revenge porn, and hate speech to try and combat tech abuse and punish those who commit it.
The law is one thing, but victims also need practical solutions; for example, technology experts on now helping domestic abuse survivors to look at their digital security and scan their devices for any spyware that might have been installed. They can help to look for GPS trackers in cars and cameras within the house, as well as anything that might have been installed on phones to track where they are going or who they are talking to.
Education is one of the biggest tools to combat tech violence as women and girls are taught new ways to keep themselves safe. If a partner is attending appointments they were never told about, this might signal that they are tracking you. Victims can then be given ways to check how their devices are being used and free themselves from it.
Tech Abuse Often Goes Hand-in-Hand with Physical and Emotional Abuse
Women’s refugees and domestic violence charities are also becoming more aware of the tech abuse threats and are helping women to find ways to escape abusive partners both physically and virtually.
Tech abuse is rarely exclusive of other forms of abuse and more often forms part of it. It dovetails into physical and emotional abuse to isolate and inevitably control their partners, leaving them fearful of every move they make, even when their abusers are not around them.
Although the first legal steps have been taken to combat tech abuse, legislation is notoriously slow to keep up with technology – meaning that it could be some time before the police and the courts have the full powers they need to tackle this form of abuse.
Kerry Smith has worked exclusively in the field of family law since the late 90s. She is a long-standing member of the specialist family law practitioner’s organization Resolution, and is also an accredited Collaborative Family Lawyer. Kerry has personally dealt with well over a thousand cases, ranging from straightforward to highly complex. www.kjsmith.co.uk
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