About the author: Charlotte Hooper is the Helpline Manager at The Cyber Helpline, a U.K. charity and movement by the cybersecurity industry that supports more than 2,000 individuals and sole traders impacted by cybercrime and online harm every month.
Technology is increasingly part of our day-to-day life; we use it for communication, work, getting information, and even running our households with smart devices. However, as we spend more and more of our lives online and put our trust in technology, it becomes an increasingly accessible tool for abusers to utilize.
Tech abuse refers to the misuse of technology to control, harass, threaten and harm individuals. It encompasses various forms of cybercrime and online harm, including cyberstalking, tracking, hacking accounts and intimate image abuse. Tech abuse can be covert, so by understanding what it is and what it might look like, you can recognize if it is happening to you or someone you know.
Defining and recognizing tech abuse
Malicious online behaviors in the form of those motivated by financial gain, such as scams and fraud, have existed, and awareness around them has been raised for years. Traditionally, these crimes are thought of as being committed by strangers online. Lesser known are the online harms committed against those the perpetrator knows—partners, ex-partners, family members, and friends.
Of the cases submitted to The Cyber Helpline, 55% are not crimes where the criminals are motivated by financial gain. Instead, these cases consist primarily of technology-facilitated abuse by an ex-partner, online hate crimes, and fixated stalkers who use technology to discover secrets about the victim and send threats.
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Tech abuse can be covert; it might not be evident that the perpetrator is conducting this abuse, but they might appear to know things that they shouldn't. Or it might be more overt, and you know it is happening. However, even when the abuser doesn't try to hide their behaviors, you may not realize that they are malicious and abusive.
A common example of this is surveillance. We normalize the use of surveilling and tracking young people through "parentware" or spyware (software which allows someone to see what someone else is doing on their device) and apps which enable the tracking of someone's location. In young people, we might utilize these technologies to keep them safe, but when this extends to adult relationships, these technologies are seen used for abuse and control. Still, it might not be seen that way due to the normalization of surveillance and the narrative that 'surveillance is love'.
Tech abuse can be present in a number of different ways. It might be used on its own, or it might be used to facilitate other types of abuse, including physical, emotional or financial. Tech abuse might be a demand to check your phone, not allowing you to have control over your accounts and devices, hacking into your accounts, sending harassing or threatening messages, posting intimate or sensitive images online without your consent, using surveillance devices like bugs, cameras, and trackers, or even utilizing smart home devices maliciously.
However, perpetrators of tech abuse will often use the path of least resistance, there might be a very technical way to do something, but even when the abuser is an IT expert, we still see them using easier and less technical ways to conduct their behavior.
The impact of tech abuse
The impact of tech abuse is violent; just because something is happening online, this doesn't change. The impact and feelings that those experiencing tech abuse experience are often similar to those experiencing other types of abuse. Some researchers and survivors also report that tech abuse can cause additional impacts, including a loss of privacy, hypervigilance and a loss of trust and confidence in technology—something vital for many people in this age.
Due to the nature of technology, it can often feel that something isn't right, but you may not be sure what it is. This feeling is similar to a "fog of war" where you know something is happening but aren't sure how or why. For instance, the perpetrator of the abuse may seem to know who you have been messaging, but you're unsure how. This can happen in several ways: requesting an itemized phone bill, physically accessing your devices, installing spyware, or hacking into accounts linked to your device.
As mentioned, perpetrators commonly use the path of least resistance, but when looking online for the methods that somebody could exploit to conduct this behavior, often the more technical, confusing and technologically improbable reasons appear, which can lead to mistrust in technology and feelings of hypervigilance, which may lead to feelings that anything strange that happens online is related to the abusive behavior. As a result of hypervigilance, confusion can occur among friends, family, law enforcement, and other professionals, which may lead to a lack of, or inappropriate, support being put in place and a lack of a support network.
The lack of privacy also creates further isolation for the individual; they may not be able to seek help safely, access funds, contact their support network and services, or just be able to converse with someone online. Those experiencing tech abuse may make many changes to their lives to escape the abuse. They may move houses—often multiple times if the perpetrator finds their new location—stay at home more, cut off friends and family if they're not sure they can trust them, delete accounts, and spend copious amounts of money purchasing new devices and security software.
Navigating consent and boundaries in the digital age
There isn't currently a widely recognized definition of tech abuse, making it difficult to understand if you're experiencing abuse. There are also some things that may be acceptable in some relationships but not others; for instance, for some people sharing their location with their partner might help them feel safer, while for others, it feels like an invasion of privacy.
It is important to think about what you are comfortable with, what you want to consent to and what your boundaries are when it comes to technology and if it is safe to do so. This could be something that you talk about with your partner, friends, and family. It's an excellent opportunity to open up discussion around technology with them, too, and make them aware of the dangers.
Earlier, I discussed the normalization of surveillance. If you do ask your children to share their location or to check their messages, this is a great time to talk to them about why you do that, to gain their consent to do it, and to speak to them about why, in other relationships, it may not be acceptable behavior.
Consent is a process, not permanent; it can be withdrawn and can be situational. For example, you might want to share your location with someone while walking alone at night but turn it off once you are home. It should be something you want to do and feel comfortable doing, not for the benefit of others.
What to do if you think you or someone you know is experiencing tech abuse
The Cyber Helpline has developed a Cyberstalking Action Plan, which can also be used for cases of tech abuse. It's important that you have support around you, not only from friends and family if you can talk to them safely, but from experts who can advocate for you and ensure that you get your online security and privacy back safely. Removing access to accounts and devices or blocking the perpetrator can remove evidence that might be important if you want to report the abuse, but it may also escalate the perpetrator's behaviors.
The Cyber Helpline can support you with this alongside stalking and abuse advocates and experts, such as the National Stalking Helpline or local domestic abuse organizations. Getting this support before doing too much research on how the abusive behaviors are happening is also important to ensure that the misinformation you might receive elsewhere that might cause hypervigilance is minimized and that you are getting the correct information and an evidence-based method for checking for the tradecraft the perpetrator might be using.
Your safety is a priority, and if you don't feel that it is safe to contact support agencies from your own devices or accounts, then you could try to access support in-person, such as attending your local police station, or by using a public device, such as a library, or a device that belongs to someone you trust. You are not in this alone, and there are people that can support you. If it is not you who is experiencing the abuse, but someone you know, then make sure to talk to them about the signs of tech abuse and help them to access support.
Online safety advice
Even though the timing has to be right, you will regain your online privacy and security. The Cyber Helpline can support you through this. Malicious activity might exist on the fringes—people can create fake accounts to message or send emails—but there are ways to ensure these are sent to spam and don't invade your privacy. At this point, we have to consider what we can control and can't. Security and privacy are something that we always have to be mindful of, and even if you're not experiencing tech abuse, here are tips and steps you and your family can take to protect your technology and accounts.
Be suspicious and trust your gut.
Use good passwords. Consider using a password manager to help you create strong passwords. Google and Apple have these built-in if you have an Android or iPhone.
Enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on all sites and devices where it is offered. This is a text or code you must enter when you sign into your accounts; it acts as a second layer of security on top of your password.
Always review the security settings of new accounts and devices and enable functionality. Keep checking them regularly if anything changes or new features become available.
Ensure you update your software on all devices you own as soon as an update is available; they are often rolled out to fix security issues.
Be careful about where you access the internet. Use your mobile data unless you trust that the wireless connection is secure.
Don't click on links or attachments in emails. Even if it is someone you trust, but you weren't expecting the message, give them a phone call to make sure it was them.
Install and use antivirus on your devices.
Don't let people have physical access to your devices.
Be careful about what you share and who you connect with online.
Back up your data regularly and keep this backup secure so that you can return to a known safe state of your device if something goes wrong.
There are some great resources out there that can help you with your online security, such as Get Safe Online, but remember that if you are in a situation where there is already ongoing abuse, you should speak to experts in this area first to make sure it is safe to take these steps.
You can visit The Cyber Helpline for more support and advice.
This article was part of a collaboration with You Don't Own Me and appeared originally here.