Perpetrators of domestic and family violence (DFV) are using GPS and surveillance technology to monitor and harass their victims, according to an investigation undertaken by the New South Wales Crime Commission.

Known as Project Hakea, the report found over 37 per cent of individuals who purchased tracking devices were known to police, and a quarter had a record of DFV.

“Domestic violence perpetrators use tracking devices as part of a series of behaviours intended to intimidate, frighten, and control their intimate partners,” said NSW Crime Commissioner Michael Barnes.

These disturbing findings surprised investigators, who initially launched Project Hakea to understand how GPS and other surveillance technologies were being used in serious and organised crime.

“Tracking devices are frequently used by organised crime networks to monitor, locate, and ultimately attack their rivals, in fact they are now part of standard toolkit for violent organised crime,” Barnes stated.

The investigation collected and analysed data from the sale of 5,500 devices to over 3,000 NSW-based customers, as well as compiling information from witnesses and organised crime associates.

However, enquiries quickly uncovered a shocking and concerning trend of digital devices being used to carry out DFV.

Barnes explained, “Disturbingly, Project Hakea revealed that in addition to the extensive use of tracking devices by organised criminals, their widespread use by DFV offenders creates an urgent need to address the issue.”

Advanced technology putting victims in danger

The use of GPS or other surveillance devices to monitor, stalk or harass is a type of tech abuse.

This form of abuse has increased by a staggering 650 per cent since 2019, with half of all Australian adults experiencing victimisation in their lifetime.

Project Hakea also revealed 82 per cent of offenders charged with unlawful use of a tracking device were committing DFV offences.

Three-quarters of these offenders only started tracking their victim following a separation.

Tracking device purchases by criminal background. Source: NSW Crime Commission / Supplied

Women in domestic violence situations are significantly more likely to be killed by intimate partners during or immediately before they try to leave an abusive relationship.

Barnes said part of the issue was surveillance devices were easily accessible, inexpensive and simple to conceal.

Technologies commonly used to stalk and harass victims include GPS, Bluetooth tags and tracking tiles.

These tools allow locations to be monitored in real-time, and many even record movements, enabling users to view up to six months of historical data.

Many tracking devices can be purchased online or in-store at reputable retailers, with some costing as little as $10.

Major changes needed to keep victims safe

While the use of technology to track another person without their consent is illegal in some states, it is not yet prohibited in Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia.

Even where laws exist, they often don’t do enough to protect victims.

Illegal tracking charges by crime. Source: NSW Crime Commission / Supplied

In one case study published in the Project Hakea report, a perpetrator purchased over 15 devices from an online marketplace, including hardwired and magnetic GPS trackers that he installed in his victim’s vehicle.

While the offender was charged with illegal use of surveillance devices, stalking and contravening an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO), he received only a Community Correction Order and did not serve a custodial sentence.

The NSW Crime Commissioner said government and industry must work collaboratively to strengthen legislation and make it harder for perpetrators to access these technologies.

The report’s recommendations include a call for devices to come with safety and anti-stalking measures built-in, and for the sale of devices without these features to be highly restricted.

It also advised several legislative changes, such as amendments to prohibit perpetrators on AVOs or parole from purchasing, possessing or using tracking technologies.

Further recommendations include introducing regulations for the sale and supply of surveillance technologies, including supplier licensing, customer records and mandatory reporting of suspicious purchases.