The Team Helping Women Fight Digital Domestic Abuse

Pick up any piece of tech and Emma Pickering knows how it can be used to abuse, harass, and stalk women. Amazon’s Ring home doorbell cameras can monitor when someone leaves the house and who is visiting them. Until recently, Netflix showed the IP addresses where users were logged in, allowing their location to be tracked. Workout apps and websites such as Strava show where and when people are exercising. And abusers often slip small GPS trackers or audio recorders into women’s belongings or attach them to their cars.

“Perpetrators buy them in bulk, and they’ll buy probably 60 very cheaply; they’re very small and discrete,” says Pickering, who works at Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse organization, where she heads a team that helps women secure their devices. Pickering says that in one case “over 200” recording devices were found in a woman’s home.

Refuge launched its Technology-Facilitated Abuse and Economic Empowerment Team in 2017, amid a surge of abusers weaponizing apps, devices, and online services to harm women. The charity helps women and their children leave abusive relationships, providing emergency accommodation, legal help, financial aid, and more. Almost every case now involves technology in some form, Pickering says, and the issue is so serious that every person the organization places into a refuge goes through a tech assessment to secure their accounts. The tech abuse team, which is made up of 11 people, is the only one of its kind in the UK and just one of a handful of similar organizations around the world.

Technology-facilitated abuse can range from harassment via phone call or text message to logging into someone’s social media and email accounts without their permission, which allows abusers to read, delete or send messages. In more extreme cases, they might install “stalkerware” on victims’ phones to monitor every tap and scroll. Nonconsensual image-sharing, commonly known as “revenge porn,” and economic abuse, where money and banking apps may be controlled by an abuser, are also frequent. In August, a report from MPs in the UK concluded that tech abuse is becoming “increasingly common.”

Pickering says her team primarily focuses on helping people in the more severe cases. “Firstly, we need to establish if it’s safe to speak to them on their device,” she says. If it isn’t, Refuge will send women a burner phone and then set them up with a new email address, using the encrypted email service Proton Mail, before sending them extra information. It’s the start of a meticulous process—known as an “attack assessment” by the team—to secure accounts and devices.

“We go through everything,” Pickering says. Refuge will ask the person they are helping to list every device and online account they and any children have. These can easily number into the hundreds. “Within the home, if they’ve fled the relationship, we also need to check anything they’ve left behind to unsync from any devices or accounts that they could still be using back home.” This will include products like Google Home Hubs, and Amazon’s Ring doorbells and Alexa, and it requires checking who set up the devices and is the administrator of the accounts, as well as which names phone contracts are in. From there, a safety plan is created, Pickering says. This can include going through the accounts and checking settings for who has access to them, removing devices connected to accounts, using secure passwords, and setting up measures such as two-factor authentication. On average, Pickering says, it can take three weeks to get through the entire process, although more complex cases take much longer.

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