When most people think about domestic violence or stalking, they picture it in the physical realm: a partner who hits or chokes, or who follows their victim home or to work. Increasingly, though, the technology that makes life more convenient – from remotely controlled heating systems to GPS on cellphones – gives abusers a new way to control and harass their victims.
Ferial Nijem was in a long-distance relationship with her former partner, who lived in a different city. He designed and owned the high-tech house she lived in, and when she displeased him, she says, he used the web-controlled heating, lighting and sound systems to harass her from afar. When she slept, the stereo system would begin blaring heavy-metal music at high volumes. She would turn off the lights, and he would turn them back on from his computer in a different country. “You feel like you’re going crazy,” she said in an interview.
“The technology was wired into the bones of the house,” making it almost impossible to shut off. Because she hadn’t installed the software, she didn’t have the passwords to control the systems. “It was like living in a haunted house,” she said. “Lights were going on and off like strobes. The TV would go on and off.”
Nijem said that her ex-partner would monitor her remotely, both through security cameras installed in the house and through a keystroke logger he’d installed on her computer, and would tell her he could see exactly where she was and what she was doing. She called the police in the U.S. city where she was living, but was told that because no acts of physical violence had occurred, there was nothing they could do. A police officer directed her to a women’s shelter, and advised her to buy a burner phone that could not be traced.
“It was the type of abuse that hits you on a cellular level,” she said. “It hits all your senses.” Eventually, she sought help from a women’s shelter that had a specific “women of means” program for those who were in relationships with wealthy men. Other women in the group told similar stories about being digitally surveilled by their former partners. Today Nijem has become an advocate for those experiencing similar technology-based abuse.
Because the issue is so new, specific Canadian statistics are hard to come by. However, this form of harassment and surveillance is becoming more prevalent, anti-violence educators say. In Britain, one women’s shelter reported more than 900 accounts of “tech abuse” in the first nine months of this year. Those incidents can range from spyware being installed on victims’ phones to remote control of smart gadgets within the home. A recent New York Times story reported that “technology [is] becoming an alarming new tool” in cases of domestic violence: “Abusers – using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the internet-enabled devices – would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power.”
“It’s the 2.0 version of gaslighting,” says Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based anti-violence educator. “Whether it’s hacking into home-security systems so you can see inside the home, or who’s coming in and out at all times, or hacking into the GPS inside people’s cars.”
Lalonde has been a vocal advocate for improved criminal-harassment education and regulations, after she was stalked by an ex-boyfriend for more than a decade. “I was not the most tech-savvy person and my partner was,” she says. “He would do things and I would have no idea what he was doing or how to disable it. And this was when technology was much more rudimentary than it is now. It’s not fair that women should have to be taking this crash course in tech to keep themselves safe.”
Those safety measures might include disabling GPS on a phone, driving older model cars that don’t come equipped with GPS or uninstalling internet-controlled systems in the home, such as lighting, stereos and heating. Although, as Lalonde points out, these measures can be costly and inconvenient.
Far from discouraging abusive behaviour, some tech companies are actively complicit or turn a blind eye when selling spyware apps, a recent academic study concluded. The paper, titled The Spyware Used in Intimate Partner Violence, outlined the ways that more than 200 apps could be used to track a target’s movements and record their data and call logs. In some cases, the apps were marketed for their abilities to spy on romantic partners without their knowledge. As the report noted, ‘’Survivors of intimate partner violence increasingly report that abusers install spyware on devices to track their location, monitor communications, and cause emotional and physical harm.’’
Farrah Khan, a Toronto-based anti-violence educator, says she’s hearing more cases of this kind, especially from young women, and worries that tech giants aren’t taking the problem seriously. She was invited to talk to Microsoft when the company was introducing voice-activated software, and told them: “This is where harassment is going.”
“It’s another way that people can control you,” Khan says. “It’s like living in a jail or a prison. It’s terrifying. … It fulfills that thing abusers often say: No matter where you go and no matter what you do, I can see you and I’m in charge.”