Digital abuse new domestic violence front

Hacked phone image by Ian Brown

Hacked phone image by Ian Brown

Georgie Moore, AAP

The constant calls and texts, and phone and computer hacking means Anna* never really escaped her abusive ex-partner.

The mother of three thought she could start reclaiming her life last year by contacting former friends online after fleeing almost a decade of abuse in Adelaide.

But her partner didn’t just track her mobile phone and Facebook account, he hacked them.

Then he created a revenge pornography page with Anna’s phone number and sent links to her family and friends.

‘It made me feel dirty and disgusting and I didn’t want to leave the house,’ she told AAP.

‘It does make you feel like you’re never going to escape.’

Up to 90 per cent of domestic violence cases involve technology and the problem is growing, according to South Australia’s Legal Services Commission.

Virtually every woman who comes through the Northern Domestic Violence Service’s doors in Adelaide’s north has experienced some form of technological abuse, case worker Melissa Jones says.

But frontline workers don’t have the skills to keep up with technologically-savvy abusers.

‘When men aren’t working, that’s their job. They sit at home and find out every little loophole,’ Miss Jones said.

‘They know exactly what they’re doing and know exactly which line they can get to without crossing it.’

For Anna, the abuse was mostly verbal and physical – until she left.

Then her ex sent menacing voice mails – even as she changed her number multiple times – and hacked her mobile to delete them before she could go to the police.

He contacted her from random numbers. But the sim cards were always traced back to Anna’s name.

GPS tracking

He used GPS tracking to intimidate her while she was at parenting courses and their children’s school.

He posted Facebook statuses rubbishing her assault allegations.

He then posted intimate images and videos of Anna, which stayed online for weeks.

But even with screen shots, she was told there wasn’t enough evidence for a police investigation.

Flinders University computer security expert Paul Gardner-Stephen says abusers know how to minimise or erase their digital footprint.

‘Your average domestic violence victim is not trained in forensic data collection,’ he said.

‘There’s a sense on the police’s part that it’s pointless and hopeless.’

But SA police say online and telephone offences are covered by a range of state and federal laws and that, wherever possible, offenders are held accountable.

‘We give the highest priority to the protection and ongoing safety of victims and their children,’ a spokeswoman said.

Dr Gardner-Stephen is looking to set up a university drop-in centre training workers and victims to protect against and collect evidence of digital abuse.

For Zoe*, another survivor, this could have saved her from more than two years of torment.

When she left her sexually abusive husband, he monitored her movements through an old mobile phone.

‘He was actually using my Gmail account on that so he could read all of my messages and find out where I was sending them from,’ she said.

‘He started stalking me, emailing me a million times a day, asking me questions that were ridiculous – where did his son go, what did he eat today?’

Despite a court order preventing digital contact, Zoe said her ex still targeted her.

‘Police can say things and the court can say things like “don’t post her name on social media”,’ she said.

‘He makes all these posts about how women who take their children away from their father should be hanged. But because he doesn’t name me, it doesn’t count.

Digital evidence

‘I feel like he threatens violence but he doesn’t do that in a way I can prove.’

To help women like ‘Anna’ and ‘Zoe’, Miss Jones wants specialised training for police and domestic violence workers so they can collect enough digital evidence to press charges that are likely to stick.

She says the onus shouldn’t be on victims to abandon social media, which helps them reconnect with family and friends.

‘Women lose just about everybody they know while in an abusive relationship. They’re isolated,’ Miss Jones said.

And many survivors are convinced their abusers will always find a way to get to them.

‘If I closed down my Facebook account, he’d find me a different way. He’d look at my LinkedIn or he’d look at my networking profiles,’ Zoe said.

‘I feel I’ll never escape him. Until I die, he will be on me.’

* Names have been changed to protect their identities.

* National domestic violence helpline: 1800 737 732 or 1800RESPECT. In an emergency, call triple-zero.

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