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UK’s surveillance culture may be normalising use of tech for abuse

Intense surveillance of public spaces by UK authorities may be playing a part in the normalisation of cyber stalking in intimate relationships

The acceptance of widespread surveillance in public life may be putting people at risk of falling victim to digitally enabled abuse by normalising the idea that it is acceptable to monitor the online activities of one’s partner, according to researchers.

Speaking at a recent roundtable on digital stalking and abuse, held by security supplier Kaspersky to mark the recent International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, UCL’s Leonie Tanczer, a lecturer in international security and emerging technologies, said the problem was to some extent a reflection of accepted norms such as as the presence of ubiquitous CCTV cameras, or even data and location sharing among friends.

“If you ask a lot of people, they feel comfortable sharing their location, with consent, freely with friends because they think it’s OK, useful and beneficial,” she said.

“I have observed this pattern towards monitoring becoming socially acceptable to the point where people think it’s less weird to check your [partner’s] phone because your employer does it too.”

The data, compiled by Kaspersky, reveals that 11% of Brits think it is acceptable to spy on their partner without their knowledge or consent, and a staggering 76% would feel justified in monitoring their partner’s online activity if they thought they were being unfaithful.

The study also found that 15% of people in the UK have been digitally stalked, 44% of them by a smartphone app, and many even said they had been forced to install stalkerware tracking apps on their mobile devices by a partner. Anecdotal evidence gathered by Tanczer’s research team at UCL suggests that some abusers coerced consent for monitoring to make sure their partners were “safe” following the March 2021 murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Metropolitan Police officer.

Also, nearly a quarter of people were worried about their partner violating their privacy, and more than half worried that this would be done via their smartphone. At the same time, Kaspersky found that more than half of people knew the password to their partner’s device, highlighting a discrepancy between concern and behaviour, and perhaps providing more evidence of how surveillance is becoming normalised.

Campaigner Gina Martin, who successfully fought to make up-skirting illegal in the Voyeurism (Offences) Act of 2019, commented: “This research paints an alarming picture that the UK has a very serious problem with both online stalking and domestic abuse, which are intrinsically linked.

“Digital stalking is a distressing act that can lead to physical acts of violence and abuse. It is vital that more people are aware of its dangers and are given the tools, advice and support they need to combat it.”

Kaspersky principal security researcher David Emm echoed Martin’s call for widespread education on the issue. “The growth in stalkerware poses a huge concern – and we fear that these latest, worrying figures are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Stalkerware typically runs in the background without the affected individual noticing.

“To avoid the risk of someone installing stalkerware on your phone, it is always important to use a complex lock screen password and avoid leaving the device unlocked. Stalkerware is the digital aspect of a much bigger issue and if you think it has been installed, reach out to Refuge for support and the Coalition Against Stalkerware for some guidance on the steps you should take next.”

Alexa, spy on my wife

But the use of technology to monitor, stalk and abuse partners in intimate relationships does not begin and end with smartphones. Panellist and technology writer Barry Collins recounted two stories from his own experience of how other connected devices and applications can be exploited by abusers.

In one instance, a friend of the speaker’s, who had taken out a restraining order on her partner because he had been violent towards her, had a sense that he still knew what she was up to because he picked up details about her life, such as what she had been talking to their children about, that he could not have known. Collins and his friend switched out her smartphone, but eventually figured out that he was exploiting the legitimate drop-in feature on her Amazon Echo.

Drop-in enables two-way communication between Echo devices, in effect turning them into an intercom. When active, the users’ Echoes glow green, but in this instance the victim had not noticed this light and therefore had not made the connection.

A stranger example Collins dealt with was that of a woman who contacted him concerned that she was being stalked via Spotify. The investigation found that the victim’s abuser was following her on the music service – which does not provide a means to block a follower – and from her activity could work out what she was up to.

He also contacted her friends, and abused a Spotify feature where users can create public playlists and upload images and bespoke text to them as a means to harass her further.

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