Tech playing growing role in UK domestic abuse cases, experts say

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Andriy Popov/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Andriy Popov/Alamy Stock Photo

Domestic abuse cases requiring specialist support because technology has played a key role have soared over the last year, the largest specialist provider of domestic abuse investigation services in England and Wales has warned.

Complex tech abuse cases involve perpetrators using multiple accounts and devices to abuse, control and monitor their partners using a range of tech as well as sophisticated malicious software.

Refuge, which on any given day supports over 7,000 women and children across its services, said the average number of complex tech abuse cases for the period April 2020 to May this year were up 97% compared with the average number in the three months before the outbreak of the pandemic.

Tech abuse could involve abusive messages or calls, hacking of phone or email, cyberstalking, posting malicious messages on social media, controlling device passwords and usage or control of online banking among other behaviours.

The charity launched a specialist tech abuse team in 2017 but in response to the recent surge has set up a new website aimed at helping women secure their tech and to provide support if they are experiencing tech abuse.

Ruth Davison, the Refuge chief executive, said: “Over the last year, as the UK moved to adopt necessary lockdown measures, many of us have turned to our tech to connect with loved ones.

“However, at Refuge we’re keenly aware that technology is often used by perpetrators of domestic abuse to further isolate, intimidate and stalk their partners from their support networks, making it even more difficult for women to escape their abusers.

“Our aim is to keep women safe from tech abuse while giving them the tools to secure their accounts and devices and maintain their digital activity into the future.

“Refuge’s ethos is to empower women to use their tech safely, ensuring they aren’t forced into further isolation.”

The new website provides survivors with the opportunity to learn about and recognise tech abuse, has a new animation to illustrate common forms and experiences of tech abuse, includes 17 step-by-step support guides covering a range of device and account settings and has an interactive chatbot with video guides for securing accounts and devices in English, Urdu, Polish and Spanish.

Davison added: “As our lives are lived ever more through our computers and phones, it’s crucial that women experiencing abuse are able to use their technology safely, without fear of being monitored, controlled and harassed.”

An earlier report from Refuge’s partner Avast found a 93% increase in the use of malicious stalkerware apps compared with the same time last year. These apps are often used by perpetrators of domestic abuse to monitor their partners

Refuge has over 100 “tech champions” who are also able to provide survivors with tech abuse support.

The conditions of lockdown in England and increased awareness about domestic abuse led to a 61% surge in calls and contacts logged by the charity’s domestic abuse helpline in the past year.

In the early stages of the pandemic, organisations including Refuge made efforts to raise awareness of the unique risk posed to victims of domestic abuse under lockdown conditions.

Overall, serious violence fell in England and Wales, with a Cardiff University study showing 56,653 fewer people were treated in hospital for violence-related injuries in 2020, a fall of a third compared with 2019.