Calling out technological tethers in coercive control

Today I appeared at the NSW Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control. This joint select committee was established in October 2020 to inquire into and report on coercive control in domestic relationships.

For the purposes of this very important inquiry, coming at a critical moment in time, eSafety primarily focused on the impacts of ‘technology-facilitated abuse’.

We believe it is time to shift the dial and take concrete action to understand and address violence against women, in all its forms. 

At eSafety, we see the harmful experiences of women online every day. 70% of all forms of online abuse reported to our office come from women and girls.  

Through our image-based abuse scheme, we commonly see domestic violence victims whose intimate images and videos have been shared broadly online as a form of so-called ‘relationship retribution’.  

Of course, we all know that we are not going to arrest or regulate our way out of these issues, which is why we place a strong emphasis on prevention, education and awareness programs and what we call proactive and systemic change programs. These include furthering initiatives such as safety by design and sending out early warning positioning statements on digital technology threat trends like deepfakes, doxing and the dangers of immersive tech. 

So, what is ‘technology-facilitated abuse’ and what kind of impact does it have?

The frightening reality

Technology-facilitated abuse comes in many forms.

It is the woman so tied to her abuser through technology that she was forced to send a photo of herself and her surroundings to him every half hour, so the abuser could confirm that she was where she was meant to be, and still dressed in the same clothes as when she left home.

Technology-facilitated abuse can be multi-modal and suffocating, making a woman feel that her former partner remains an all-seeing presence in her life, even after she has taken the brave step of separation.

Like the instance of one abuser who used a drone and spyware alongside physical stalking to constantly monitor a mother and child in a small community, where there was literally no escape.

Technology-facilitated abuse can manifest as total domination – as when an abuser set up cameras in every room of the home, so there were no areas in that house where the woman and her children were not in constant view. There was nowhere in their own home that they felt safe or unwatched.

Technology-facilitated abuse happens when an abuser fits kill switches in a car to shut down the engine, preventing a woman from leaving the home or ensuring she can only drive as far as the school and back.

These are all real, tangible examples of where digital technology has facilitated abuse – that is, any behaviour that uses digital technology to isolate, harass, monitor, stalk, impersonate, threaten or humiliate someone. When we speak about ‘someone’, in the vast majority of cases we are speaking about a woman.  

The damaging impacts

Technology-facilitated abuse is an almost ever-present extension of coercion and harassment in family and domestic violence cases.  As the examples show, it enables an abuser to control their partner, both during the relationship and even post-separation, when they are no longer physically present. 

Technology-facilitated abuse can be very public, such as the posting of intimate images or damaging slurs plastered over social media, but it can be more insidious so that it is invisible to others. Gaslighting is also a common tactic.

Technology-facilitated abuse can happen in what might be considered the most routine of online practices – where a woman’s child support payments are riddled with hostile messages through an online banking app.

While it might seem self-evident, it bears mentioning that women tell us that they feel anxious, isolated, afraid, invaded, misunderstood, powerless and sometimes paranoid. 

Technology-facilitated abuse can destroy a woman’s belief in herself. It can damage her capacity to understand what is happening to her and to respond independently. And it can create patterns of paralysing fear.

While it may not leave physical marks, the damage can be extensive and enduring. It may also serve as a red flag for future catastrophic physical harm.

The child victims

The impacts on children can also be profound. eSafety research shows that 27% of domestic violence cases involve tech-facilitated abuse of children. Often they are used as pawns to facilitate the surveillance of the other parent, filling the child with anxiety, guilt, fear and sense of immense grief and helplessness.

Take the instance of the father who used his son’s social media account to identify his school uniform and track him down, then attempt to abduct him. This was after the mother and child had fled interstate to escape the father’s past violence. They were forced to flee their new home to another undisclosed location.

The importance of access to technology

While these are just a few examples of the myriad ways that digital technology can be weaponised to furthers harass and control, we know that technology can serve as an important tool for women. It keeps them connected with loved ones and ensures that support services are in close reach.

This is why any definition of coercive control must reflect the way that technology can contribute to – and exacerbate – non-physical forms of violence. These include psychological, emotional, sexual and financial abuse, as well as the use of technology to isolate a victim or enforce control through monitoring and surveillance.

We must never believe that the solution is to remove technology from women. The solution is to support women to use technology safely and address the abusive behaviour of others. 

The eSafety Women  program is central to our efforts to prevent technology-facilitated abuse. It’s designed to help a range of frontline workers understand and address the use of technology in domestic and family violence situations. 

We are proud to have reached 15,000 frontline workers through face-to-face workshops, and through webinars during the pandemic.  

eSafety’s submission

We believe digital technology must be addressed in the definition of coercive control. But this needs to be done in a way that preserves the ability of women to harness the positive uses of technology while preventing abusers from weaponising technology against their current or former partners.

Moreover, law reform is only one part of a ‘whole of community’ and systems approach to addressing this issue. 

The culture of our legal institutions needs to change in tandem with technological advancement and its subsequent misuse. We believe further training targeting cultural change in attitudes and responses within law enforcement and the judiciary is sorely needed.  

Finally, and at a fundamental level, we must address the social, cultural, behavioural and structural factors that underpin and enable violence against women – online and offline.