'Somehow he knew my every move': How tech became the latest tool for abusers

When the country was plunged into its first lockdown in spring 2020, the abuse Louise* had been suffering at the hands of her husband plumbed a new low. 

He was in their home constantly, and the short break she could get from her once-daily permitted exercise provided the only respite from his campaign of control and violence.

On one occasion, when she’d returned home from a run in the warm sunshine and had taken a shower, Louise went to put her bra on. Seconds later she dropped it, after discovering it had semen on it – her husband had masturbated on the bra and returned it to where it was hanging. 

‘It was disgusting. It was wet and fresh. I felt violated’, recalls Louise. 

This marked the latest atrocity in a campaign of abuse that left Louise, who is in her fifties, depressed, anxious and questioning her own sanity. 

‘I had been in my marriage for a few years, but after a short amount of time, the relationship broke down’, she explains.

‘He was living in my house and he had become verbally and then physically abusive. It began small; little insults that became more personal. Then more degrading comments.’

Like many survivors, Louise found that the pandemic made the abuse so much worse.

‘Then it got really weird’, she says. 

After setting up a doorbell camera when some packages had gone missing, Louise also put cameras in her bedroom and home office. It was an idea that had come to her when her husband Michael* started to become violent and she realised the footage might come in useful.

However, Louise could never have imagined that he would take over the household technology and use it as another way to terrify her. 

Known as ‘tech abuse’; there are a growing numbers of cases where perpetrators have been caught using technology to control, harass or intimidate their victims. They hack phones, cyberstalk their victims and use social media, cameras, or other kinds of technology as means of control. 

Just last month, a dentist from Earls Court, London was jailed for three years after installing a camera in his family home to control his wife. Dr Amandeep Goma, 39, would monitor his wife, record her and speak to her through the camera when he was away, demanding that he cook and clean – and threatening to pour bleach down her throat if she didn’t.

Also in December, 53-year-old Steven Blades was sent down for 25 years for coercive and controlling behaviour following a campaign of serious physical and sexual violence. He bought his victim a phone contract that she did not need so that he could keep tabs on her and would bombard her throughout the day with phone calls to check up on her.

Meanwhile, model Brooks Nader has recently revealed that a stranger dropped an Apple AirTag into her bag to track her movements and proceeded to continuously stalk her for five hours.

However, it was during lockdown, with perpetrators stuck in their homes, that incidents of tech abuse first soared. Between April 2020 and May 2021, the domestic abuse charity Refuge saw on average a 97% increase in the number of complex tech abuse cases when compared to the first three months of 2020. By November last year, there was an average 118% increase.

Michael seemed to know where Louise was going and what she was doing all the time, even when she didn’t tell him. 

She hadn’t told him about the tests she was having at hospital one day. But when she returned home, he made particularly cruel comments like: ‘I hope they find out what’s wrong with you. I hope whatever it is kills you.’

Michael hid belongings, messed with the wifi so she couldn’t work, and mocked and derided her when she challenged him. 

And then there were the frequent and incredibly disturbing incidents of defiling. 

Louise says: ‘He took my clothes from my wardrobe, masturbated on them and put them back. I had to check everything before I got dressed in the morning, to make sure they were not soiled.’

She checked the camera footage from her home, but there were no video entries for those times.

I didn’t know the term at the time, but it was classic gaslighting

‘It was constant. I never knew if I would take my underwear or clothes from my wardrobe and find they had been abused by him. It was as if it was his sport.’

Louise changed the passwords on her computer and email and set up two-factor authentication, but it kept on happening. 

‘I honestly thought I was going completely insane,’ she recalls. ‘Then it escalated massively. I couldn’t leave the house without coming back to find he’d defiled my clothes. I didn’t know the term at the time but it was classic gaslighting.

‘The whole thing was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t feel safe in my own home. I didn’t know what to do.’

Having nowhere else to turn, she asked Refuge for help in November 2020. With help from their tech team, it emerged that Michael was using the wifi to control his wife; he was accessing her email account and harvesting information.

‘I realised with the cameras he could see and hear everything I was doing in my bedroom and in my office. He knew my every movement. I felt totally violated.

‘He knew my emails. He could listen to my conversations about when I was going out and coming back. He had complete control.’

Taking advice from the charity’s tech team, Louise got a new phone, and kept it under constant watch. She disconnected from the home wifi, disabled the cameras and stopped using her devices in the home.  

The violence escalated. Michael pushed, shoved and tripped his wife, setting up what he called ‘accidents’. Louise felt paralysed and in fear for her life. 

In June last year, Louise courageously gave Michael 24 hours to leave the home before she changed the locks. Instead, he assaulted her. Louise dialled 999 and the police arrived within minutes and took him away. She has not seen him since.

With Michael out of the house, Louise says she was able to piece together the extent of his surveillance. She found a disk in the loft containing files of her personal emails.

‘I didn’t know how long it had been going on,’ she says. ‘He was able to observe everything about me. I’d thought I’d been going crazy. He told me I was going crazy.

‘When I found out what had been going on, it all fell into place. It was terrifying.’ 

Following the assault, Michael was given a Non Molestation Order and a caution for assault by beating. Louise now wants to put the abuse behind her.

‘I never feel wholly safe, and in the back of my mind there is always that doubt. Am I still being surveilled? I’m still in the same house, which feels tarnished. I don’t feel safe in my own home anymore.’

Disturbingly, 11% of UK adults think it’s acceptable to monitor their partner without their knowledge, according to cybersecurity firm Kaspersky. Along with Refuge, Kaspersky is a member of a global initiative called the Coalition Against Stalkerware.  

Their principal security researcher, David Emm, says Michael may have been keeping tabs on Louise using stalkerware – readily available software, which provides access to personal data, including live location, text messages, social media conversations, browser history and photos.  

But, he adds: ‘There are other means of intercepting information. These include collecting information from smart devices on the home network, such as cameras, and monitoring e-mails, social media and other accounts that the perpetrator could gain access to.’

A June 2020 report from the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, listed a number of ways in which abusers use phones as a tactic of coercive control. One woman told researchers her partner had smashed up to six phones during the relationship, while another perpetrator would send pictures of himself standing outside his partner’s house when she was out. 

Dr Tirion Havard, co-author of ‘Beyond the Power and Control Wheel: how abusive men manipulate mobile phone technologies to facilitate coercive control’, says: ‘Technology allows constant contact between perpetrators and victim/survivors, even when they are not in the same place. This gives perpetrators a sense of omnipotence, that they are always there even when they cannot be seen.’

Interviewees from London told Dr Havard they would avoid using the Tube because they were so frightened of a subsequent attack. 

‘The consequences of not responding to a text or picking up the phone immediately means that many women took very long, and often several bus journeys so that they could be contacted,’ she explains. ‘This was their way to try and reduce the risk of further harm including physical and sexual violence.’ 

Amy Aldworth, 27 had a ‘petrifying experience’ that triggered a spell of depression and saw a man convicted of harassment. 

The NHS worker from London, went on one date in July 2020 with a man she’d met on a dating app. Before they could go on a second one, he messaged her, suggesting that she had given him HIV. 

Amy knew this couldn’t be true, and tried to reassure him. But he messaged with more and more frequency and aggression, until she got an emergency test – which was, as predicted, clear. 

Over the following weeks he repeatedly texted Amy and bombarded her family and friends with abusive messages via Facebook and Instagram. She changed her phone number and he began trying to contact her at work. Amy was terrified that he would turn up at her home and ended up experiencing panic attacks and anxiety.

‘It really affected my mental health,’ she recalls. ‘Just going outside on my own for a walk anywhere, just felt really, really uncomfortable. That three or four months, felt like it went on forever.’

Working with Refuge, Amy contacted the police and the man – who she has asked not to be named – eventually pleaded guilty to harassment and was sentenced to a 12-month community order and subjected to a restraining order. 

Following the conviction, Amy felt safer. But she says she is still frightened today. 

‘It is still quite scary for me,’ she admits. ‘If a number calls my phone that I don’t know or I get a message request on Instagram or Facebook, I always have that moment of – “Oh my god – is it him?”

Are you being stalked online?

Stalkerware typically runs in the background without the affected individual noticing. To avoid the risk of someone installing stalkerware on your phone, it’s important to avoid leaving the device unlocked and use a complex lock screen password. You should also: 

  • Check the list of applications on your device to see if unknown programs have been installed without your consent
  • Consider buying a new phone for private communications, if you can afford it
  • Don’t rush to remove any stalkerware found on your device, as the abuser may notice and it will remove evidence that you are being stalked. It is very important to consider whether the perpetrator may be a potential risk to your physical safety before determining appropriate action to take
  • Contact local authorities and service organisations that support victims of domestic violence to gain assistance and help with safety planning.
  • To find out more from the Coalition Against Stalkerware visit www.stopstalkerware.org

Helpful links:

If you think you are in danger of tech abuse, Refuge can help. Click here for more information. 

Or you can call the free 24-Hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0808 2000 247

‘When it comes to dating, I don’t use any online anymore, because it just petrifies me. I’d much rather meet someone in person. I wouldn’t go on a dating app again.’

Going out can also still trigger anxiety for Amy, whose doctor prescribed her with medication to help with the panic following the abuse. 

‘It was just one date and then it just spiralled and escalated into something I never thought would happen,’ she says. ‘I really did throw me sideways. I thought: “This is this is insane. What’s going on?” 

‘I always tell my friends now to be extra careful. If they’re meeting guys off dating apps to just make sure one of us knows exactly where they are. I tell them to share your live location [on your phone] and any time, just call me or text me if you need me. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what happened to me. It was horrible.’ 

Psychologist Aaron Surtees, head of clinic at City Hypnosis and Founder of Subconciously.com app, says this sort of abuse can sap victims’ confidence: ‘To be abused by someone you thought you could trust can crush your world and cause a variety of knock-on effects in your life,’ he explains. ‘The domino effect can make you question every element of your world, and leave you second guessing yourself on even the most basic of levels.’

This was the experience of Gina*, a strong and capable woman who was left a broken shell by her abuser.

She describes the early days of the two-year relationship as a ‘full on love bomb’ – all flowers, kind words and romance. 

But the warning signs began to show for Gina when her partner started demanding to know why she had male friends on Facebook. He then brought her a car which within a week had to go away for ‘cleaning’. When it came back, the car had a tracker on it. 

‘Without my knowledge, the tracker gave him a report every day of where the car went, what speed it was going, to how long it stopped at traffic lights,’ she explains. ‘It was very in-depth. Later, he would ask me really random questions about where I’d been.’  

Gina realised she was being stalked when she spotted the software on his computer. But when she challenged him about it, he turned on her, asking why she’d been snooping. 

He set up fake Instagram and Facebook accounts, which he would use to publicly criticise her. ‘He would swear at me. Accuse me of being a stripper or a prostitute. He just wanted to destroy me,’ she says. ‘I had a very good idea that he was behind the accounts.’

The abuse was intimidating and debilitating, and left Gina self harming.

‘I got to the point of wanting to not be here. anymore,’ she admits.

By the end of the relationship, Gina was so broken down by the abuse, that she felt there was no way out. She made two attempts on her life, before finding the strength to leave and start a new life hundreds of miles away from him.

Gina says she now feels strong and competent again, but the trauma took a while to recover from. ‘I don’t want him to control me anymore’, she adds.

Counsellor Emma Davey set up the Victims of Narcissistic Abuse Support Group which has more than 20,000 members: after suffering her own experience of tech and domestic abuse – something she is wary of talking about as her abuser has never been charged.

Currently supporting 150 clients, she hears tales daily of abusers tracking their victims using Fitbits and exercise tracking apps, of perpetrators following their partners’ Uber accounts and installing spyware on their computers. Cameras in the home are common, as are tracking devices on phones, she warns. 

‘This is even after a relationship has ended,’ she adds. ‘An abuser will still follow them. They feel entitled to know what their victims are doing.’

Elaha Walizadeh, development practice advisor at domestic abuse charity Safe Lives, advises that everyone practice ‘digital hygiene’ to stay safe, ensuring we all protect our passwords and change them regularly. 

‘Sharing passwords has become so normalised. I’ve worked with young people, and it is like a big thing, if you’re not sharing your password with your partner, it’s almost like you don’t trust them,’ she explains. 

‘But email and password autonomy is very important, regardless of what situation you’re in. It’s vital for us as individuals to have autonomy of that technology.’

Ruth Davison, Refuge Chief Executive Officer, adds: ‘As our lives become ever more reliant on technology and smart devices, abuse is getting smarter too and abusers are using technology to facilitate it. 

‘The solution must not be to force women offline or off their devices – it must be to make online spaces safe for women and girls and ensure this form of abuse is taken seriously as the crime it is and perpetrators are held to account.’

*Names have been changed

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected] 

Share your views in the comments below.

Source: Read Full Article

Previous post New study reveals UK caravan holidays aren't as cheap as you'd think
Next post Celebrities who have welcomed twins as Kelvin Fletcher shares news