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Domestic Violence Goes Digital

Family Law

Family Lawyer Kristyn Winner explains the ways in which perpetrators of domestic violence are using modern technology to harass their former partners, and what can be done about it.

In my work as a family lawyer, helping my clients to make a clean break from an abusive relationship will often include helping them with strategies to avoid online harassment. Notwithstanding technology’s many positive benefits, the truth is that in the wrong hands, it has also created multiple new avenues for domestic violence perpetrators to harm their ex-partners at any time, day or night. Threatening online behaviour can mean that even when the victim is not in the presence of their abuser, they can still feel harassed, intimidated and unsafe.

A survey of over 500 family lawyers in 2015 found that 98% of family lawyers have clients who have experienced technology-facilitated stalking and abuse. The technology and online platforms identified as being most commonly used by abusers to commit cyber-violence were smartphone (82%); mobile phone (82%); Facebook (82%); email (52%); and GPS tracking (29%). Some common behaviour I have seen in practice include receiving threatening or abusive messages through a variety of messaging platforms, using surveillance or tracking software and devices in cars or in phones, monitoring of social media accounts and posting threats online publicly or to family and friends of the victim.  The non-consensual sharing of intimate images (so called “revenge porn”) is yet another example. Some more passive behaviours can also satisfy the definition of harassment, for example checking the victim’s emails and messages without permission, constant messaging, emailing or calling and monitoring of online bank accounts.

The use of technology in stalking has a significant impact on a victim’s mental and physical wellbeing, their day to day routines, employment, parenting and relationships. Victims who have experienced technology-facilitated stalking have often experienced other forms of domestic violence including emotional, financial and sexual abuse.

Fortunately, in most instances we can harness the power of technology to protect ourselves from this sort of situation. A common piece of advice given to victims of online abuse is to simply “switch off”, having the benefit of depriving the abuser of the ‘’oxygen” they need to succeed in hurting their victim. A practical problem with this can be to cut a victim off from their support network and result in isolation, and so clients who take this approach should think proactively about other ways in which they can keep in contact with their close friends, whether that be through closed groups online, or using new applications that prevent the abuser from making contact.

Other strategies that do not involve our client switching off altogether include:

  • Using a different computer to the home computer. If a victim’s partner has access to their usual computer, instead use a work computer, public library, or internet café.
  • Changing all passwords for social media and messaging accounts, banking password and pin numbers.
  • Creating a new account for social media and messaging accounts using a new email address.
  • Always signing out of the accounts used and ensuring “do not remember password” is selected in the browser.
  • Checking location settings on mobile phones, and ensuring they are not public i.e. in applications such as Snap Maps and find my iPhone.

Perpetrators of this sort of conduct can be directly warned through legal channels that continuing online harassment could result in criminal prosecution. For example, using a carriage service to menace or harass a person can lead to imprisonment for up to 3 years. The same maximum penalty also applies to unauthorised access to data on a computer. There are also criminal penalties of up to 7 years in prison for the distribution of revenge porn, and civil penalties of up to $105,000 for individuals and up to $525,000 for corporations if they do not remove an image when requested to by the eSafety Commissioner.

We can often make use of evidence of online harassment to help with a client’s family law case, or to help gain a higher level of assistance from the Police. For this reason, we always recommend that our clients keep records of all online harassment. For example, take screenshots of online comments, keep call logs and text messages as this will be vital in building a case for the Police. We can help you should this unfortunate situation arise.

Counsellors, solicitors and domestic violence liaisons can all assist with putting an exit strategy in place in circumstances where parties have not yet separated or remain living under the same roof. Remember, if you fear for your safety, call 000.