She didn’t know it then, she said in court, but that mid-evening break-in was far from the first time he had stalked her — he’d been doing it for months, in real time, authorities said. The man, whom she dated for six months, allegedly weaponized simple technology and smartphone apps that allowed him to remotely stop and start her car, control the vehicle’s windows and track her constantly.
“I am still trying to come to terms with the scope of violation and trauma I have experienced,” she said.
The account of these actions, which took place in the Australian state of Tasmania, was reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. ABC did not name the victim or the accused, but the case highlights a troubling trend that domestic violence advocates have warned about for more than a decade: As surveillance and tracking technology becomes more advanced and ubiquitous, stalking and other forms of intimate partner violence can become more difficult to fight.
“These types of technologies are becoming more and more common,” Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told The Washington Post. “What we know, what we’ve always known, is that abusers and perpetrators will use any tactic and tool they can access in order to perpetrate harassment and abuse.”
“These are modern forms of old tactics and behaviors,” she said. “The behavior is not new, but the technology is.”
In the Australia case, which resulted in the 38-year-old man pleading guilty to stalking charges in the Hobart Magistrates Court, he tracked the woman’s phone location using spyware, for which he paid a monthly fee, ABC reported. Though disturbing, that method of surveillance is relatively widespread, according to a Motherboard report on the “stalkerware surveillance market” that put the number of victims in the tens of thousands.
But the man also used an app that integrated with the woman’s Land Rover. He helped her purchase it when the two were together, which gave him access to the car’s registration information, allowing him to set up the app. ABC did not identify the app, but its functions are similar to Land Rover’s “InControl” app, which allows car owners to start their vehicles remotely, adjust temperatures and track their locations.
A spokesman for Jaguar Land Rover North America said he’s never heard of such a case in the United States, but said he’s looking into the allegations from Australia.
Olsen said app-based vehicle tracking is an emerging problem, but like other forms of digital abuse, it’s also a modern take on long-standing behavior: Abusers have long kept tabs on the odometer in their targets’ cars, knowing exactly how many miles they’d travel to and from work or school. Now, abusers can monitor that travel live.
“These behaviors existed beforehand, but the availability of some of these technologies absolutely can make it easier for abusers,” Olsen said. “It can make it real time.”
More than 50 percent of victim service providers reported that offenders use cellphone apps to track or stalk their victims, according to a survey from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Forty-one percent of providers reported that abusers use GPS tracking.
“Digital abuse of intimate partners is both more mundane and more complicated than we might think,” said Cornell University sociology professor Karen Levy, writing in Slate last year.
“Many forms of digital abuse require little to no sophistication and are carried out using everyday devices and services,” she wrote. “But at the same time, digital intimate partner abuse is incredibly hard to fight, because the relationship between abuser and victim is socially complex. Abusers have different kinds of access to and knowledge about their victims than the privacy threats we often think about.”
Levy is one of a number of academics researching the intersection of digital technology and intimate partner violence, and she co-wrote a paper on the ways social media and technology have created “a stalker’s paradise.”
Like elsewhere, the abuse of women through technology is prevalent in Australia, Heather Nancarrow, the CEO of Australia’s National Research Organization for Women’s Safety, told The Post. Advocates are working with the country’s largest communications companies to “consider how their product development can address the risk of abuse,” she said.
Olsen suggested technologies and apps could be more explicit about notifying the user when their device is being tracked or is connected to spyware. Nancarrow said some in Australia are pushing for further updates to the criminal domestic violence code that would keep pace with changing technology.
According to ABC, a recent change in local law means stalking cases are now heard in a state’s Supreme Court, and the charge can result in the offender’s name being entered into a register for up to 15 years.
After they searched the man’s home, police found a notebook filled with the woman’s personal information, a list of places she frequented and a list of weapons and their costs.
The Australian woman said in court that she’s spent the last 10 years working in digital technology, ABC reported. She didn’t know she was so vulnerable.
“As a professional working in the industry, it has shaken me to learn what the offender did to my car is even possible,” she said. “As a victim it has caused trauma so deep that it’s hard to adequately describe.”