Domestic abuse does not necessarily have to involve physical contact. It does not have to be visible or loud. It comes in many forms.
We are seeing many more cases, even here in Northern Michigan, where abuse happens via technology. It is time for the community to become aware of the danger to women that exists via their electronic devices and better understand that abuse, by any form, poses dangers.
Virtually every day at our organization, we hear stories like a client who received a link to spyware that destroyed her phone’s functionality, or even a guest at our emergency shelter who was listed on Craigslist, without her knowledge or consent, for sex trafficking. 85 percent of shelters nationally report working directly with survivors whose abusers tracked them using GPS. 75 percent of shelters say they have worked with survivors whose abusers have eavesdropped on their conversations remotely using hidden mobile devices. Abusers have been shown to provide their children with electronic devices as gifts, with the ulterior motive of monitoring or tracking down the mother of the children.
One app that particularly concerns advocates for survivors is Snapchat. It features a very specific map that shows users where everyone in their network is, at any moment. That is why we ask all of our emergency shelter guests to turn off all location functions on mobile devices.
But the most misused platform by abusers is Facebook, which can impact survivors of all ages. Abuse on Facebook includes abusers tagging survivors in disturbing posts from fake accounts. Abuse is about control and Facebook gives its users control of its platform, in these cases, inducing fear.
Even “smart homes” are fertile ground for abusers, who can hack into systems to control lights, thermostats or whatever it takes to exert power.
For the safety and security of our clients, the Women’s Resource Center has incorporated new processes, like asking our clients not to use Facetime in our facilities, so as not to give away the location of an emergency shelter. We also provide clients with a safe computer they can use at our main office. We try to give them flash drives, so they have a safe place to store evidence of online abuse. We also ask them to save their text messages, to protect evidence against their abusers. Virtually every survivor now needs an online safety plan.
In addition to keeping survivors of abuse physically safe, we need to work, as a community, to keep them safe in all aspects of their lives. For all of us, in this time in society, our online lives can be as “real” as every other facet.
Abuse via technology is as “real” as any other form.
This would require several important changes. It is currently very difficult to prosecute those who use technology to abuse their intimate partners. Taking steps to include abuse via technology in Personal Protection Orders and to hold abusers who use technology with harmful intentions accountable would be a step in the right direction. Additionally, the tech industry should prioritize abuse of technology by perpetrators.
Together, we can help modernize the way society views domestic abuse.
About the author: Christina Muhlbach is Volunteer Coordinator and Development Assistant at the Women’s Resource Center for the Grand Traverse Area.
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