Adapting to the growing threat of tech abuse

 

Ellen* was living in one of our refuges with her two children when her former partner happened to ‘bump into’ them – she had no idea how they had been found.

She had recently left him after years of physical abuse, harassment, abusive language and monitoring of her activities, including regularly checking her bank account and building up debt in her name.

It was after speaking to her key worker that Ellen realised that he must have accessed her emails via her home computer to track her whereabouts. With the support of her tech advocate, Ellen soon identified other ways in which she was vulnerable to abuse via everyday technology, for example through her daughter’s online video games, her own social media activity and the various email accounts she had.

She also admitted that due to her fear of being tracked down by her ex, she no longer dared buy anything online and had shut down a lot of her social media activities, losing contact with lots of friends and family members.

This year we have already supported 400 survivors who have suffered some form of tech abuse.

Receiving support to stay safe

Ellen’s tech abuse worker created guides to show her how to keep safe whilst still accessing many everyday digital tools. Together, they reviewed her Wi-Fi, PC, Smart TV, wireless printer and she was taught how to install firewall security.

Ellen says she now feels safe and capable of handling day to day technology and troubleshooting issues herself. She has regained the confidence to make online purchases using vouchers – in time she hopes to use a debit card again. She is now able to recognise phishing emails, knows how to set up and access parental controls on the Smart TV, Nintendo Switch and laptop, is aware of tracking devices that could be placed on her daughter following contact with her ex, and has set up WhatsApp – an encrypted messaging service that is safe – so that she can get back in touch with her friends and family.

Refuge’s tech abuse team

Since the launch of our tech abuse programme in partnership with Google at the end of 2017, Refuge has recruited a team of five tech abuse leads, a tech abuse manager and over twenty tech abuse champions, located across our national network of specialist violence against women and girls (VAWG) support services.

UK legal experts have delivered training to the team on the links between abuse of technology and the law. The tech abuse team is now working with survivors of tech abuse gathering evidence to support police officers and the crown prosecution service bring successful criminal prosecutions against perpetrators of technological abuse.

Since the outset of the service an international specialist tech abuse organisation trained 240 Refuge staff and will return in June to train a further 90 staff and 30 tech champions. This will enable all our frontline staff to provide a robust response to the growing threat of tech abuse in all of its forms. Meanwhile, the project was highlighted in the Government’s consultation on ‘Transforming the response to domestic abuse’ as an example of innovative practice to tackle tech abuse.

Data from Refuge’s case management system, IMPACT, shows that this year we have already supported 400 survivors who have experienced some form of tech abuse and the new team is supporting more than 30 specific tech abuse cases.

Ellen recently told her key worker: “each skill I’ve been taught is transferable and will be relevant for the rest of my life – as I go forward, I no longer fear technology.”

(* name changed to protect her identity)