Tech companies should build products with domestic violence victims in mind, expert says

Tech companies should build products with domestic violence victims in mind, expert says
  • PublishedFebruary 11, 2024

A few weeks after Abigail* left an abusive relationship, a strange incident with her laptop led her to believe her ex-husband had put spyware on her computer.

“I’d be at my laptop and the mouse would start moving on its own, and it would click into my Gmail, scroll down and change tabs,” Abigail said.

She said her ex-husband used his technology skills as a professional in the industry to control, monitor and manipulate her throughout their relationship.

When they first got together, he insisted on buying her new devices.

“He bought me my laptop, bought my phone,” Abigail said. 

“He said … ‘Just leave it with me. I’ll set it up. I’m the guru.'”

Before long, he started tracking her location, and questioned her about where she had been when she returned.

She said when they had an argument, he would delete business meetings from her calendar, and she would unknowingly stand-up clients.

She said he would even edit their bills, leading her to pay more than her fair share.

A mobile phone lit up on a table next to someone using a laptop. 
Abigail says her ex-husband insisted on buying her new devices and setting them up.(ABC News: Brant Cumming)

But it was an incident after their relationship ended that left Abigail particularly frightened.

“I went to a therapy session and two hours later, he sent me an email from myself,” she said.

“So he’d duplicated my email address … and sent me dot points of word-for-word what I had said to that therapist.

“I was like, ‘how did this man know where I was [and] know what I was saying to my therapist?’ It gave me goosebumps.”

Cyber stalking common, report finds

According to a 2020 report by the  Women’s Services Network (WESNET) 99.3 per cent of survey respondents had clients that had experienced technology-facilitated stalking and abuse.

The report also showed those surveyed noted an increase in clients being tracked by GPS tracking apps or cameras. 

WESNET chief executive Karen Bentley said technology was one of the variety of tools perpetrators of domestic violence used to harm their victims.

She said legal apps such as parental control or anti-virus protection programs could fall under the category of stalkerware when misused.

“These programs are legally available, and they often appear on people’s phones quite legitimately,” she said. 

Ms Bentley said outside of legal apps, spyware programs existed that were specifically designed to be loaded on somebody’s phone covertly.

“We’ve had many cases of women ringing up saying: ‘I just left the women’s service … I was just talking to them about what I’m doing’, then the phone rings and he says: ‘what did you tell her that for?’ because he’s listened to the entire conversation from a remote device.”

Ms Bentley said more needs to be done by technology companies and the legal system to protect potential victims from abusers who weaponise their products.

“We need technology companies to build their products with domestic violence victims in mind,” she said. 

Ms Bentley said WESNET had previously worked with a company that was designing wearable tracking devices for pets.

“The company designed the product so, that it would have to be linked to a subscription service with a verified, named individual,” she said.

“So, if you found one of these tags it would be linked back to the owner, and you couldn’t just go and buy it off the shelf.”

Help available for victims of tech-abuse

In the meantime, victims of tech-facilitated abuse rely on national and state-based domestic violence support services to stay safe.

Abigail was referred to Women’s Safety Services South Australia (WSSSA), who provided her with security upgrades for her home and a “tech-sweep” through the group’s Safe at Home program.

WSSSA team leader Adele Winter said demand for the Safe at Home program had jumped by more than 50 per cent in the past two years.

“In [the] 2021 to 2022 financial year, we completed 228 audits through the Safe at Home program in the metropolitan area, and then last financial year we completed 355,” she said.

“That’s a huge number.”

Abigail said while she still felt anxious at times, the support provided by WSSSA had given her peace of mind.

“I’m always on high alert when I open my laptop. I’m like, ‘Is there gonna be an email in my inbox?’ But I do feel safer now,” she said.

Abigail urged others who witnessed abuse like hers to speak up and have the important conversations with loved ones.

“I know it’s just a really sensitive topic and situation,” she said.

“But I think you do have to pull the woman aside and gently ask: ‘Are you OK? Are you safe? Is there anything that you need help with? You can confide in me.'”


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