Cameras, surveillance and the sinister tech behind domestic abuse

A note in the dead woman's pocket read: "There are cameras inside and outside the house."

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On July 30, 2011, Simon Gittany threw his fiance, Lisa Harnum, off a 15th-floor balcony. She didn't survive.

Court documents paint a picture of a deeply troubled relationship in the months leading up to Harnum's death. She wanted to leave Gittany. She told her mother she felt trapped.

Shortly before 10 a.m. on July 30, Harnum's Sydney neighbors heard a woman banging on their door and screaming for help. A camera in the hallway recorded Gittany putting his hand over Harnum's mouth and dragging her back into their apartment.

Sixty-nine seconds later, she fell to the pavement below and died almost immediately.

Later, during the postmortem, investigators found a handwritten note torn up in the pocket of Harnum's jeans.

When it was pieced back together, the note read, "There are cameras inside and outside the house."

Always connected

Billions of connected devices are playing a frightening new role in domestic abuse, helping perpetrators harass their victims at any hour of the day, in any corner of the world. While smartphones, cameras and social media have broken down barriers to communication, they're also erasing the physical distance between abusers and their targets, allowing them track and torment their victims in terrifying new ways. 

For many, escape can feel impossible.

"Before, to abuse someone emotionally or physically would require access to them," says Dr. Hadeel Al-Alosi, an expert in law and criminal justice from the Western Sydney University. "Now that everyone has an iPhone and social media, it has become possible for abusers to pretty much torment victims or survivors any time of the day."

But whether victims are subjected to psychological abuse or physical violence, there is one common denominator.

"Domestic violence is about control," Al-Alosi says. 

Behind closed doors

For many victim-survivors, the most extreme forms of control can come through the most mundane technologies -- phone calls, texts, social media posts -- all enabled by always-on mobile devices, fast internet connections and pervasive connectivity.

According to a 2015 Australian survey of domestic violence practitioners [PDF], more than 80 percent of case workers reported clients were abused through both social media and smartphones. Perpetrators most often used text messages as their weapon of choice. One case worker described a victim receiving more than 30 calls and messages during a single counseling session.

A 2015 survey from the National Network to End Domestic Violence in the US reported similar numbers, and said "anonymity" was enabling abusers like never before.

One police officer I spoke with said a significant number of abusers flock to social media. While not authorized to speak on behalf of the state police force he works for in Australia, the Detective Senior Constable says digital platforms are emboldening abusers.

"People get very brave when they're miles away from someone and behind a keyboard," he tells me. "That's when the threats and manipulation really come into play."

Side View Of Woman Using Phone While Lying In Darkroom

If it's not one technology, it will be another. 

Emily Maguire, CEO of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria in Australia, says abusers will always find a way to control or harass their victim.

"If he can't get to her through her Facebook, he'll go through Twitter," she says. "If he can't get to her through Twitter, he will go through a phone. If he can't go through a phone, he'll go through her friends."

Al-Alosi tells a story about one woman who had a restraining order against her ex-partner. With no other means of contact, the man would transfer 10 cents into the woman's bank account, just so he could leave an abusive message in the transaction description.

When digital becomes physical

Domestic violence knows no boundaries -- it affects men, women and same-sex partners, different races and socio-economic groups, as well as an overwhelming number of children. But ultimately, as one Australian report on family violence puts it, "the biggest risk factor for becoming a victim of sexual assault and/or domestic and family violence is being a woman." It is overwhelmingly a problem that women suffer at the hands of men.  

The UN estimates a third of women globally have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner, or sexual violence from a non-partner. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly half of all women murdered every year in the United States are killed by a current or former male partner. 

In Australia, on average, one woman is killed every week. In the last week of July 2011, Lisa Harnum was that woman. For her, digital surveillance meant an atmosphere that had her rightly fearing for her life.

According to court documents, Simon Gittany tracked Harnum's every move in the months before her death. He installed two cameras in their apartment and a pinhole camera outside the front door that police said was "virtually invisible." He put a secret program on her phone to monitor her text messages.

The use of spyware like this is becoming frighteningly common, according to domestic violence support workers, but it's a problem law enforcement is only just starting to come to grips with.

CCTV watching a young man in his bedroom
Miguel Navarro/Getty

In 2014, the US Justice Department indicted the creator of an app called StealthGenie in what the government said was the first-ever criminal case involving the advertising and sale of a mobile spyware app.

Installed on victims' phones without their knowledge, StealthGenie allowed abusers to monitor all calls, texts and emails, view photos and videos stored on the phone, intercept calls and even record what the user is saying when not on a call through the phone's microphone.

But while StealthGenie is gone, countless copycat apps and programs like it are just a quick Google search away, many promising constant surveillance and even physical tracking.

"It's pretty common and it's really easy to find," says Maguire of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre.

One Australian service that sells phone-monitoring apps also advertises a 2-in-1 "real-time GPS tracker and listening bug which allows you to locate its EXACT position at any time, accurate to within a couple of metres!" The service promotes its products as a way to catch cheating spouses, telling potential buyers, "It's OK to want the truth!"

The police officer I spoke with says these kinds of technologies are increasingly common in domestic violence cases. Working on the front line, he's seen "GPS units that are installed on vehicles in order to stalk people and see who they're spending time with, hidden CCTV cameras ... keyloggers installed on people's computers in order to access their online accounts" -- the kind of surveillance tech that you'd hardly expect to find in the suburbs.

But the technologies aren't always found. Surveillance software by its very nature is designed to be covert, making it easy for perpetrators to evade detection.

"We don't have any current data on just how frequent GPS tracking is, and it's really hard to collect because often you don't know," says Maguire. 

GPS tracking is especially problematic for women with abusive ex-partners, according to Al-Alosi.

"Some victims never know they're being GPS-tracked," she says. "The only reason they find that out is because their ex-partner happens to be everywhere they go."

Domestic violence case workers I spoke to described how abusers will download spyware onto phones bought for a partner or their kids, and track them even after the family has relocated for their safety. Others describe GPS trackers in cars or even children's prams.

Technology saving women, women saving themselves

It's easy to tell women to get off social media, change phone numbers or switch off completely.

But those who work on the front line say this is just another form of victim blaming. Not only does it require the victim to uproot her entire digital life, it can also do more harm than good.

"For a lot of women, their violent partner will have sought to isolate them from their friends and family," Maguire says. "Often, social media is the only way they can access information, support and resources from specialist family violence services, and it's often the only way that they can stay connected to everyone.

"Social connection and support is one of the biggest factors in women actually leaving violent relationships."

Al-Alosi agrees.

"What we're essentially doing [by telling women to log off] is driving women out of technology and making it a male-dominated space," she says. "The main issue with that is, who should be accountable?"

But while technology can be used for abuse, it also offers a solution.

The SmartSafe app, developed by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria (where Maguire is CEO), is just one tool that's making it easier for women to document their experiences, escape violent partners and see their abusers prosecuted.

It offers links to resources and tips about how to stay safe online and on their phone. And it lets users record photos and videos, write notes and even capture voice and audio recordings -- all of which are time-stamped and securely stored in the cloud. Users can either retrieve this full record from within the app, or log on to a secure site from any computer using their email and password, then download it as evidence for police.

Enlarge Image

The SmartSafe app lets users keep records of domestic abuse on their phone.

Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria

"When you get into court, and you're sitting and talking to the court worker, you don't have to take a range of random bits of paper," Maguire says. "You can just show them your phone." 

The app disguises itself (both on the app store and the phone itself) in ways that the Domestic Violence Resource Centre has asked us not to disclose, but it appears on-screen as a run-of-the-mill app you'd download onto any phone. The goal is clear: circumvent the surveillance many women experience when partners control every aspect of their phone use and communication.

The app also gives users a "sense check," she says. For victims whose partners gaslight and deny violent behavior, the app provides proof they didn't imagine the abuse.

SmartSafe isn't the only tool for victim-survivors. Others include the RUSafe app from the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, which lets women securely document their experiences.

There are also apps that connect victim-survivors with local resources and support services, and personal safety apps that will notify law enforcement if the user stops holding her phone on a late-night walk home.

And in a sign that the problem is beginning to get serious attention from governments and lawmakers, on July 1 the Australian federal government announced AU$1.2 million in funding to offer additional education for front-line support workers on identifying technology-facilitated abuse and to help them implement privacy measures for victims.

Domestic violence won't be erased by a single app. Systemic abuse is the result of a culture that excuses controlling behaviour, dismisses domestic violence and disempowers victims and survivors. 

But despite the frightening toll of domestic violence -- the countless lives it changes, the lives it ends -- technology can help.

Even after years of policing and facing horrific cases firsthand, the police officer I spoke with still has hope.

"Technology means that victims are no longer just victims. They're also active participants in their retribution," he says. "That's powerful stuff."

First published June 29, 10:00 p.m. AEST.
Update, July 2 at 10:26 a.m. AEST:
 Adds detail about new Australian government funding for training front-line support workers. 

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