It’s a gob smacking statistic – over the past five years, technology-facilitated abuse has increased by 650 per cent in Victoria alone.

In a recent interview on the Channel Nine’s Today show, the Victorian Assistant Commissioner, Lauren Callaway, reported that Victorian police responded to 94,000 call-outs associated with family violence in the past year.

“What we’ve seen and know is that text messaging and lower-level technology facilitated abuse has increased by about 650 per cent in five years.

“We’ve observed that it's very easy for perpetrators to sit in their bedroom or their lounge room, surveil and harass people.

“It’s something that they couldn't do 10 to 15 years ago.”

Advances have led to the rapid rise

The eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, reports that tech-facilitated abuse is growing rapidly, matching society's technological advancement and uptake.

This ranges from coordinated social media sexual harassment campaigns to manipulated sexualised images and videos, otherwise known as deepfaked image-based abuse.

Inman Grant said one of the most insidious and harmful forms of tech-facilitated abuse occurs in the context of domestic and family violence.

Perpetrators will hijack devices designed to connect and keep people safe to harass, stalk, intimidate and make threats.

Common abusive tactics include:

  • Being locked out of devices or online accounts, including bank accounts
  • Constant and unwanted texts or calls
  • Video recordings of intimate activities
  • Threatening to share, or sharing, intimate images or videos
  • Sharing images or videos that have been digitally altered to humiliate and shame
  • Using security and monitoring devices to track the target without consent.

“This type of tech abuse is especially harmful because it can effectively entrap and isolate the target,” Inman Grant said.

eSafety operates a reporting scheme for adult cyber abuse as part of the Online Safety Act.

“This provides Australians targeted by serious harmful online abuse somewhere to turn when an online service provider fails to act on reports of serious harm.”

Image: Shutterstock

In such situations, eSafety can take regulatory action against the platform or the offender – a power that is unique to Australia.

“As a society, we must flip our focus from what individuals can do to stay safe online - to what society must do to end abuse and hold perpetrators to account,” Inman Grant said.

“This is especially true for the online industry.

“A greater burden of responsibility must fall on Big Tech to take a robust Safety by Design approach so that they’re engineering out misuse at the front end, with specific interventions to prevent gender-based abuse.”

Immersive technologies have the potential to unleash a new wave of harms that are much more visceral and hyper-realistic than the harms of the past Web 2.0.

“With rapid uptake and increasing sophistication of generative AI technologies, we’ve already received a small but growing number of distressing, quite realistic synthetic image-based abuse reports (‘deepfake porn’) from women,” Inman Grant said.

“There’s little doubt these reports are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Anyone experiencing serious online abuse, including death or rape threats, doxing or non-consensual sharing of their intimate images (or deepfakes) should report it to eSafety.

One in two experience tech abuse

Dr Asher Flynn, chief investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and associate professor of Criminology at Monash University, said digital technologies have made it easier for people to engage in abusive behaviours, particularly monitoring and stalking.

“There are many unintended consequences of digital tools that are not effectively considered in their design,” Dr Flynn said.

“For example, shared Google calendars allow someone to track where and when someone goes.”

Dr Flynn has led a national representative survey, ‘Technology-facilitated abuse perpetration and victimisation in Australia’.

A total of 4,562 Australians participated in the survey: 2,499 women and 2,063 men aged 18 years and over.

They described various ways in which they experienced or perpetrated abuse, that included low-tech forms, such as threatening text messages, through to more high-tech behaviours, such as secretly installing malicious spyware on a digital device.

Image: Shutterstock

The survey found a very high rate of technology-facilitated abuse occurring within the Australian population with half of participants reporting having experienced at least one form of technology-facilitated abuse in their lifetime.

One in four admitted they had engaged in technology-facilitated abuse perpetration.

Victims described having their online identities hacked through social media profiles, emails and location services, as well as being monitored through apps and tracking devices.

Not surprisingly, the most common types of technology-facilitated abuse experienced by victims was monitoring and controlling behaviour (34 per cent) including stalking and keeping track of where the victim is, while another 27 per cent reported experiencing harassing behaviours, such as abusive messages or emails.

Harassment texting is unlawful

Katrina Ironside, chief executive officer, Women's Legal Service (WLS) in NSW said using technology to harass a partner or ex-partner is part of the continuum of domestic, family and sexual violence aimed at exerting power and control over a victim and instilling fear.

“Harassment and stalking can lead to criminal charges being laid by police and AVOs taken for the protection of the victim.

“Breaches of AVO can lead to a criminal conviction, fines and even jail sentences.”

For victims, Ironside said, the first step is to get help with safety planning from specialist domestic, family and sexual violence services.

“This can include safety planning about security at your house, safety measures around travel to and from work, or university or school, but also tech safety which can include ensuring there are no tracking devices on your phone, car, or computer,” she said.

Legal advice may be required

Victims can reach out to service providers such as Women's Legal Service for confidential, free legal advice about domestic violence, family law, harassment, and making a report to the police or a complaint to other bodies.

“The victim survivor needs an AVO, or if they already have one, the perpetrator needs to be charged with breaching the AVO.

“They could also be charged with stalking and intimidation offences, or other offences and WLS can assist with advice on issues like this and reporting to the police.”

Ironside adds that legislation has not kept up with the rate of growth in technology.

“WLS NSW is concerned about the ways technology is being abused to stalk, harass and intimate women and children.

“We advocate for better safeguards and interventions to stop the perpetrator misusing technology. “

Image: Shutterstock

Urgent reform

The Albanese government has begun action to keep women safe online, including by quadrupling ongoing base funding for the eSafety Commissioner in last year’s budget.

This August, the government will also bring forward legislation to outlaw the release of private information online with an intent to cause harm (known as doxxing) and overhaul the Privacy Act to give all Australians and particularly women who experience domestic and family violence greater control over their personal information.

The government has also initiated a review of the Online Safety Act a year ahead of schedule to ensure laws are keeping up with emerging online threats and harms.

In May, NSW Premier Chris Minns announced tough new bail laws for domestic violence offenders along with the government’s $230 million package to support women and families affected by domestic violence.

Protection against domestic violence technology-facilitated abuse

If you feel that you are a victim of technology facilitated abuse, such as stalking, intimidation or revenge porn, report this to your local police.

The police offer the following tips:

  • Turn off the location tracker on your mobile phone
  • Put passwords on all of your electronic devices and always log off or sign out
  • Increase privacy settings on social media
  • Check that your next of kin details are up to date and no longer those of your ex-partner
  • You can install and run security software on your electronic devices to detect apps which track your movements and record personal information.

Importantly, do not delete anything until you have spoken to the police.

Take screen shots of any social media content, as this information can easily be deleted remotely at any time.

Case study

Laviet Joaquin has spent much of her career working to improve digital security and privacy. Her work became personal after she was stalked and the experience profoundly affected her sense of safety and privacy.

Back in 2019, I started receiving multiple unsolicited and malicious emails and texts on a daily basis, this went on for months.

The stalker even attempted to hack into my social media accounts.

The constant invasion was incredibly distressing and left me feeling vulnerable and unsafe.

The stress was overwhelming. My sense of security was shattered.

I became hyper-vigilant, constantly checking my devices for any signs of intrusion.

It affected my work and personal life, making it hard to concentrate and trust others online.

I didn't go to the police but made changes to ensure my safety.

My work, and understanding of what I needed to do, helped.

I feel for victims who don’t know what to do.

I collaborated with cyber security professionals, tightened my privacy settings and used top-rated security protocols, which integrate into devices for protection.

To anyone experiencing online stalking, know that you are not alone, and immediate action is essential.