Transforming the response to domestic abuse

Closes 31 May 2018

Online threats and the role of technology in domestic abuse

Technological advances have radically improved the lives of many. However, there is also a darker side where the increasing importance and range of technology in our everyday life creates new opportunities for domestic abuse.

This can include perpetrating abuse online via social media, controlling victims’ access to their mobile phones, or installing tracking devices so victims’ movements can be followed at all times. Victims can feel like there is no escape, physically and virtually, and that technology is being used to isolate, punish and humiliate them.

We have seen this rise in technology-related abuse reflected in prosecutions. Since its introduction, many of the prosecutions of coercive or controlling behaviour have related to control of victims through the internet, tracking software and social media platforms.

There has also been an increase in the proportion of domestic-abuse related offences of indecent or grossly offensive communications.[1]

“After a few months of being together we ended up with each other’s Facebook passwords but at that time I thought this was a normal thing to do. Not long after, he began to go on my Facebook quite often until it turned into him being on it every day."[2]

We know we must do more to tackle technology-related domestic abuse and to empower both potential victims and survivors to feel safer online. On 11 October 2017, the government published the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper.[3]

It aims to make Britain the safest place in the world for online users by developing safer online communities and empowering people to take steps to improve their online safety.

The strategy considers the responsibilities of companies to their users, the use of technical solutions to prevent online harms and the government’s role in supporting the public online.

The government will work through the measures set out in the strategy to prevent and tackle harmful but legal online behaviour. Initiatives include:

  • Establishing a social media code of practice to address conduct that is bullying or insulting to users, or other behaviour that is likely to intimidate or humiliate. The code will provide guidance for social media providers on the arrangements for individuals to notify platforms of such conduct and the processes for dealing with these notifications.
  • The introduction of an annual internet safety transparency report to provide UK-level data on what offensive online content is being reported, how social media companies are responding to complaints, and what material is removed. Annual reporting will help to set baselines against which to benchmark companies' progress, and encourage the sharing of best practice between companies.
  • Working with startups and established technology companies to build safety features and settings into products and platforms from the start so that all users have access to technical tools which can help keep them safe online.
  • Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Department for Education are generating the 'online safety' aspects of new compulsory subjects: 'Relationship Education' and 'Relationship Sex Education'. We recognise this is the first generation of children who are learning about relationships and sex in an online world therefore it is important that children build their digital literacy skills so they have the right tools to make smart choices online.
  • Looking at how all online users, including victims of domestic abuse and other vulnerable adults, can be better supported to manage online risks through guidance and technological tools.
  • A Law Commission review of current legislation relating to offensive online communications to ensure that laws are up to date with technology.

Case study: tackling technological abuse

 “He integrated my iPhone activity onto his iPad...he watched and monitored everything. It made me stop contacting people. It isolated me even more.”

Refuge, with funding from the Tampon Tax, and Comic Relief, has recently launched a programme aimed at protecting and empowering women against the abuse of modern technology.

Modern technology can give perpetrators new ways of controlling, isolating and humiliating and dominating victims using items such as phones, laptops and even satnavs.

Refuge’s innovative project will keep victims safe from tech threats by teaching them how to protect their devices, empower victims to access technology, train 300 frontline staff to tackle tech abuse and recruit tech experts to keep ahead of trends.

While technology is used as a means to perpetrate abuse, there are opportunities to use innovative technology as a way of tackling domestic abuse and also to provide further support for victims.

Case study: Technology for good

TecSOS (Technical S.O.S.) is a not-for-profit initiative that seeks to support high risk victims of domestic abuse through the provision of a specially adapted mobile phone that enables enhanced access to the police in an emergency.

The handsets link directly to the 999 service where the calls are immediately recognisable and announced to the police call taker as a TecSOS call. TecSOS also provides a global location and tracking capability which is delivered directly to police control rooms.  

TecSOS is live in 40 UK police forces and is also available in a number of other European countries with over 81,000 users. Independent evaluations have demonstrated a range of benefits including improved police response times, increased mobility and self-confidence for users and cost savings. TecSOS has been accredited and licensed by Secured by Design.

36. What more can we do to tackle domestic abuse which is perpetrated online, or through control of technology?