Virtual Violence: How Domestic Abusers Weaponize Technology

Contributing Author: Wendy L. Patrick, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney

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Photo: Mirage News/Getty Images

is great to be able to get up in the morning, and ask whatever voice-activated device you have chosen as an electronic home companion to read you the news or the weather report. To snap your fingers, clap your hands, or press a button to control the features in your home. But like so many other technological advances that are designed for convenience, what is easily used can also be misused.

As a career prosecutor I have handled scores of domestic violence over the last two decades. What has evolved over that time is not the prevalence of abuse — but the manner in which it is pursued. Technology has created the opportunity for abusers to terrorize their victims from anywhere, creating an environment of oppressive control.

Psychological trauma can be particularly acute for victims who are severely outmatched when it comes to familiarity with technology. Tech savvy abusers exploit their higher levels of knowledge and proficiency to take advantage of victim electronic vulnerability. They might program a victim´s phone to set of alerts and alarms when an abuser is absent, or install invasive monitoring devices around the house to capture a victim´s movements. To intimidate, they might place a large camera on the kitchen counter, creating the impression of always watching — which many of them are.

Some abusers manipulate household electronic items to make a partner feel intimidated, confused, afraid, and concerned that he or she is going crazy. From music, to temperature control, to alarms, remotely operated technology can be weaponized as a form of power and control, used to both confuse and abuse.

There are unfortunately many other ways in which modern technology is used to facilitate domestic abuse, often demonstrating an underlying desire for power and coercive control. Research reveals how widespread this practice has become.

Technology-Facilitated Abuse

Heather Douglas et al. in a piece entitled “Technology-facilitated Domestic and Family Violence” (2019) discuss how the use of different types of technology is being used to facilitate domestic and family violence.[ii]

They examined a variety of technological means of communication ranging from smartphones to social media platforms such as Facebook, interviewing 55 survivors of domestic and family violence in Australia. Included within the range of technology-facilitated abuse they studied were incidents of identity theft, abusive texting, social media defamation, doxxing (sharing someone´s personal details online), and unauthorized sharing of sexual images.

In describing their findings, they included discussion of several destructive themes.

Ominous Omnipresence

Regarding overt monitoring, Douglas et al. note that perpetrators create a sense of omnipresence when they openly use technology to track victims, although many abusers prefer covert methods of tracking such as using a GPS device. They define location-based tracking technology within intimate relationships (as well as post-separation) as “the most blatant example” of what prior research refers to as “spatial and temporal extension of control.” Recognizing that GPS tracking removes physical boundaries, obviating the need for physical proximity.

They give one example of a woman suspecting her ex-partner had put a GPS device on her car because she noticed a drain on her car battery, and observed that her ex-partner frequently turned up in places where she was.

The Perils of Virtual Isolation

Douglas et al. note that perpetrators control of technology can also create a sense of victim isolation by cutting off remote access to friends and family. This was found to be a particularly devastating method of control for women who were newly arrived in a new country and had been relying on a video call program like Skype for example to maintain contact with family back home.

They note that some victims decide to unplug completely from technology to escape a perpetrator’s abuse. Indeed, this is often the advice given by concerned friends, family, and even law enforcement professionals. For many victims, however, this disconnection can be extremely isolating because it separates victims from not only their abusers, but also from their online support system, often including friends and family, as well as personal and professional opportunities.

Working With Survivors

In order to serve the survivor community, it is important to learn to identify the signs and symptoms of remote control victimization, including both verbal and nonverbal behavior of victims. It is also important to understand

how technology is used in cases of domestic abuse. This combination of perception and knowledge will equip law enforcement, victim advocates, and service providers with the awareness and tools necessary to effectively work with victims of digital coercive control. Healthy relationships incorporate technology as relational enrichment, not abuse.

Portions of this article were published in Psychology Today.

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The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.

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