Natasha Malmstrom says she’s constantly on alert for unwanted calls and texts from her ex-partner. (Supplied)
Natasha Malmstrom says she is onto her sixth smartphone after her ex-partner managed to track her down via the five previous devices.
- The Brisbane Domestic Violence Service hands out 50 phones a month to women fleeing abusive partners
- The eSafetyWomen program says technology is involved in almost all DV cases
- Brisbane spyware expert has found GPS trackers in cars, devices and even children’s toys
The 34-year-old says she now anxiously waits with bated breath for him to call or text on her new phone, having been stalked via Facebook, iCloud and social media for the past six years.
“It is frustrating, it is anxiety-provoking and it is scary,” she said.
“I am constantly on high alert wondering when he is going to turn up and what he is going to do next.”
The Brisbane woman says every time her phone pings she has a panic attack.
“That ding could be a threat, it literally makes me sick.
“You feel as though you have gained a freedom then you are just dragged back in again.”
Ms Malmstrom says the stalking via technology started in 2013 after their relationship broke down the year before.
“He had set up our phones as a couple at the same time, so he knew all the passwords,” she said.
Desperate and afraid after they broke up, she went to the Brisbane Domestic Violence Service, who helped disconnect her digital devices from the cloud.
He still managed to track her down.
“I think the most recent time he got my mobile number was off my dog’s collar,” she said.
That meant he had also discovered her new address.
QUT School of Justice researcher Bridget Harris said coercion, control and harassment by former partners was made easy by modern technology.
“Unfortunately it is now another tool perpetrators use,” Dr Harris said.
Dr Bridget Harris from QUT has published a study on digital abuse. (ABC News: Lexy Hamilton-Smith)
“We sometimes see threats to kill or threats of suicide issued via technology.
“It is spaceless so it is not bound to any geographic location and you can be exposed anywhere you are accessing a device, an account or any different forms of tech in your life.
“It has huge impacts on someone’s wellbeing, sense of security and also their safety.”
Dr Harris has just published a study of 20 women’s experiences with this type of digital abuse.
“Participants reported that pre-separation, their abuser had gathered information about their activities, communication and movements from their shared accounts and devices,” the study found.
“They used family plans and devices connected to the same cloud or Wi-Fi network for surveillance of their former partner.
“Many reported ignoring the texts and phone calls only escalated the problem and also risked the abuser turning up in person.
“So some kept a separate phone just to receive the abuse on and used another for everything else.”
The study was commissioned by Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).
It broke the abuse into three categories: intrusion, surveillance and identity crime.
“It is relentless, it is often at high volume, it is constant and it also sparks the fear that it could happen at any time,” Dr Harris said.
The national Office of the eSafety Commissioner said it was a trend that was growing at an alarming rate.
Family violence support services:
The eSafetyWomen program’s manager, Rosalie O’Neale, said technology was being used in almost every case of domestic and family violence they heard about.
“We see it particularly around the use of devices to track, stalk, monitor,” she said.
“That kind of thing is very closely tied to offline stalking and monitoring, which again is a very big red flag for potential physical harm.
“It is very frightening because it gives the woman who is at the centre of this no escape from it, there is no safe space she can find because the abuse will follow her, even if she goes somewhere like work or takes the kids to school.
Recommendations to ACCAN:
- Eliminate charges for changing and unlisting numbers
- Release survivors from charges for phones that abusers have taken or destroyed
- Offer financial hardship plans for domestic violence survivors unable to pay for phone contracts and plans
- Improve consumer safeguards to protect privacy and facilitate release from contracts and family plans when domestic violence is an issue
Source: Report by QUT researcher Dr Bridget Harris
“It is tracking her all the time. It is that kind of constant and insidious pressure on a woman that makes it particularly frightening, for she is feeling unsafe in the first place.”
Ms O’Neale said the eSafety office also reported an increase in tracking devices being placed in kids’ toys or iPads bought for their use by fathers after the parents separated.
“It is having kids caught in the middle between two parents but being used as part of the abuse cycle abusers by proxy and they may not even realise what is happening,” she said.
“The use of tracking devices in favourite toys or spyware on gifts of technology, iPads or new phones is something we hear about a lot.
“Here it is, it is brand new, it has all the bells and whistles. ‘But you can only use this iPad from now on because it is really special and we can communicate through that’.
“But that often means there are ways the perpetrator can track the family where they are located and the home set-up through the use of that device. It is very common.”
The Brisbane Domestic Violence Centre hands out 50 mobile phones a month to women trying to flee a tech-savvy abusive ex.
They could also organise a “tech sweep” of women’s homes and digital devices.
Spyware expert Grant Killen is contracted to carry out digital-cleansing programs.
He has found sophisticated GPS trackers in survivors’ cars, spyware in children’s toys and plenty of tracking apps that record when a woman leaves home, what emails and calls she makes and what she downloads.
Spyware expert Grant Killen has helped hundreds of DV tech victims. (ABC News: Lexy Hamilton-Smith)
“I think I can honestly say, after looking after 1,200 women and children over the last two years, nothing surprises me anymore,” he said.
“The level of violence I have observed and the level of control is always increasing. It is a manipulative mind game that the majority of them play.
“The abundance of information that is accessible on a dashboard from the perpetrator is extensive.
“But a lot of the times, it is a continual monitoring process, because sometimes we just do not know where it is coming from, the software is so sophisticated.”
Ms Malstrom says she is not going to let her former partner control her life any longer.
“I deserve to live a life free from harm,” she said.
“I’ve reached a stage of acceptance and resilience where I do not react to threats and I still have a safety plan in place.
“It is a hard slog, it is still happening to me but I am happier.
“I’ve asked him why he does it and he says he doesn’t know.”