A seemingly innocent tracking app on *Rose’s phone was the secret weapon her abuser used to keep her in a constant state of fear.
- Rose was constantly monitored by her ex-partner but now has a watch that can contact a monitoring company in case of an emergency
- Abuse facilitated by technology is mostly perpetrated by men and includes sending texts, social media posts, and tracking smartphones
- Experts say they have seen kill switches fitted to cars to limit the distance a car can travel
«I had an app so he could follow me everywhere I went,» she says.
«So he knew every movement I did. I wasn’t allowed to leave the home till a certain time, and he made sure I had to be back at a certain time.»
The constant monitoring compounded the sexual and physical abuse he inflicted at home.
«I’d get numerous texts every day. And if I didn’t answer them within a certain amount of time then I’d get an abusive text, I get phone calls.
«It was constant. What it’s done to me… I live with fight or flight every single day.»
Even after serving time for his abuse, Rose’s ex tracked her down via Instagram.
«My daughter, who first received the first message, came out of her bed screaming… absolutely screaming… shaking.»
Rose’s ex has threatened to kill her multiple times, and he is now out of jail.
But the woman telling this story is speaking with a calmness she hasn’t felt in years.
She’s found a new sense of self and safety with the help of a good psychologist, a caring partner and a watch that, with the press of a button, connects secretly to a monitoring company if she is in danger.
«It’s just given me a sense of power back,» she says.
«Because even if he came up and he attacked me again, I can goddamn tell you, I will press that button. And even if he killed me, they’re going to know exactly who it is.
«He can’t hurt me anymore. Because I’m going to press that damn watch and he’s going to go to prison for the rest of his life and be tried.
«It’s empowered me again.»
Rose shouldn’t have to wear a watch to be safe. But her remarkable story of survival shows technology’s grim potential for misuse, as well as its promise of hope to victim-survivors of family violence.
Women asking for fire extinguishers for protection
The watch was provided by the company Protective Group as part of a project with Wayss, a support agency in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.
Its chief executive Stephen Wilson and his colleague Nicholas Shaw recently travelled to Queensland, in the wake of a series of violent attacks on women, to see clients.
Just last month, the body of 27-year-old Kelly Wilkinson was found in her backyard with burns. Her former partner has been charged with her murder.
«There was an unprecedented amount of fear,» Mr Shaw says.
Rather than some people being affected by the news, as would usually be the case, Mr Shaw says «every household that I attended was affected».
And although he was there to offer IT help, he was being asked for fire extinguishers.
Technology-facilitated abuse is overwhelmingly gendered — 96 per cent of perpetrators are male and 93 per cent of victims are female.
A recent national survey by women’s services network WESNET found the found almost all women experiencing family violence suffered from technology abuse.
It’s a term that covers everything from abusive texts and social media posts, to tracking of smartphones, to covert monitoring of a victim’s movements.
And it’s getting worse.
Since 2015, the survey found a 244.8 per cent increase in frontline workers reporting perpetrators’ use of GPS tracking of victim-survivors, and a 183.2 per cent increase in the use of cameras.
The risk for Indigenous women more than doubled in that time.
Children are increasingly being drawn into the abuse.
«Children being given a phone or other device as a way to contact their father and monitor their mother’s movements showed an increase of 346.6 per cent from 2015,» the report found.
And that has harmed children’s mental health in 67 per cent of cases, according to an eSafety Commissioner report.
‘Let’s disrupt that power’
The Protective Group’s Mr Wilson joined the police force at 16 in 1978, and says times have changed since he saw his first domestic violence incident at 17.
«You’d be driving in a divvy van with a sergeant and he’d say, mate, don’t bother. We don’t want to go that one, someone else will grab that job,» he says.
But the current level of fear has made an impression on him.
Mr Wilson says his company has helped about 12,000 women and children over a decade.
He says women should not have to modify their behaviour to counter the changing methods of their abusers.
«It should be about him stopping doing it,» he says.
«And that’s where we sort of step into that really early stage of how we can keep them safe. Let’s disrupt that power. Let’s take that power away from him and give it back to her.»
His company’s audits check locks on doors, finds tracing or monitoring devices, and checks phones and computers for stalking tools.
He’s found perpetrators who had videoed women while they slept at home.
Mr Shaw says companies selling monitoring devices actively market their wares as means to control women.
«Doing the work I do… I often get targeted on social media by companies trying to sell me hidden cameras and hidden tracking devices,» he says.
He says often the devices are pitched at finding out if partners are cheating.
Ultimately, Mr Wilson knows his services, while potentially life-saving, do not address the underlying problem.
«I can’t make excuses for my gender,» he says.
‘We’ve seen people fit kill switches to cars’
Experts say the problem is getting worse.
But while tens of thousands of frontline family violence workers have been trained in the field, many women struggle to find the expertise they desperately need.
eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says while the bulk of tech abuse functions are readily available in smartphones, some perpetrators are getting more devious.
«We’ve seen people fit kill switches to cars, so that a woman can’t go beyond the school and back without her car stalling,» she says.
«We’ve seen people program smart TVs to leave menacing messages every time the TV is turned on.
«We’ve seen people remotely controlling heat or lighting, to either heat out their family or keep them in the dark.»
She said there was varying levels of technical expertise among perpetrators, but there weren’t enough services using people with technical knowledge to provide assistance.
It’s that gap that’s led Wayss to commission a security firm with a donation, in a project led by Robyn Roberts.
«I’d like to see a technology-facilitated abuse assessment upfront in every service that we provide to family violence victim-survivors,» Ms Roberts says.
«I think it’s really important to intervene early on in our relationship, to support that person around their safety and their future escaping from family violence.
«So the sooner we can do it, the better the outcome for that person.»
‘Fear and terror’
WESNET chief executive Karen Bentley is concerned about the mental toll of such abuse.
«One thing that came out very strongly in our survey was the mental anguish and the fear and terror… the sort of the mental toll that that takes on you, because it can be covert, and it can be all-encompassing,» she says.
She says it is hard for women to get away from technology, which has an impact on their mental health.
«And, of course, that doesn’t help when you are trying to seek support, because people are going to think it’s a mental health issue potentially, rather than a real technology issue,» she says.
Ms Inman Grant says technology-based abuse victims «may not be carrying visible scars».
She says it makes women feel like they can’t escape.
Rose points to the dilemma around technology for violence survivors like herself, who turn to platforms like Facebook when they are isolated and terrified at home.
«That was a way of me feeling like I was leaving the home to speak to friends, or seeing their lives. I didn’t want to lose that,» she says.
Women in danger still face inadequate, patchy responses.
This week’s annual report examining Victoria’s implementation of recommendations from the 2015 family violence royal commission said for victims who remained at home, monitoring of perpetrators was inadequate.
It labelled safe housing as a priority area.
«Despite a series of investments in a range of accommodation types, this system limitation has seen the least progress out of all areas of the reform since the royal commission,» the report reads.
At the same time, the World Economic Forum praised Australia as a world leader in putting the onus back on tech companies to make their products safer.
Ms Grant says the progress made with tech giants represents «a cultural change».
But citing Zoom’s ‘zoom-bombing’ issues during lockdown, where people were able to hack into others’ meetings, she says «tech wreck» moments keep happening.
«All of this was in the haste to roll out technology without anticipating the risks and building in the safety protections upfront,» she says.
«We’ve got product liability laws that prevent manufacturers from putting out products that injure people. This needs to happen with our technology platforms and our technology devices as well.»
«I think the government needs to take a very damn hard look at themselves. And so does Facebook, so does Instagram,» she says.
«I’m sure that they can come up with some things within these phones, to make them more safe.»
While technology moves slowly towards protection, Karen Bentley says it’s not the endgame.
«Technology is often blamed as the reason that this is happening,» she says.
«But at the end of the day, it’s the abusers’ behaviour.»
*Rose is not her real name.