A study, led by an expert from the University of Portsmouth, has shone a fresh light on the depraved digital depths abusers will go to to keep tabs on their prey.
Perpetrators are increasingly using spyware to hack into their partners’ or ex-partners’ online accounts and monitor their movements.
Abusers are also creating more fake social media profiles to ‘degrade’ and harass their victims – or in some cases impersonate them, in a callous bid to humiliate them online.
The project, funded by the Home Office, also found victims were being stalked by their abusers, who were using geo-location apps and social media to relentlessly hunt down their targets.
The research, revealed today, comes as the head of a Portsmouth-based domestic abuse charity warned the situation was only getting worse.
Dr Shonagh Dillon, chief executive at Aurora New Dawn, said: ‘Perpetrators will use whatever tool available to exert power and control over victims.
‘We live in a world of social media and the internet, where perpetrators will use those mechanisms to isolate, traumatise and instil fear. This type of online abuse is really prevalent.
‘This is really debilitating for victims. It causes alarm and distress and is really shameful. There’s imaged-based sexual abuse that can be very, very degrading. It can be utterly heartbreaking to watch the victims go through this.’
Dr Lisa Sugiura, lead author of the study – who is the senior lecturer in criminology and cybercrime at the University of Portsmouth, said perpetrators of domestic abuse were ‘progressively using’ digital tools to ‘monitor, threaten and humiliate their victims’.
‘Technical skills are not necessary to perpetuate most forms of technological abuse,’ she warned. ‘Many of the tools used are everyday technologies, readily available, accessible, and familiar. Apps are affordable and easy to use.’
Apps like Alexa, Nest and the Hive smart heating system – as well as Ring doorbell cameras – were becoming more prevalent in domestic abuse cases, Dr Jason Nurse, associate professor in cyber security at the University of Kent added.
The study warned the use of social media by perpetrators was part of a wider net of ‘coercive and controlling behaviour’ used by abusers.
The report also found that children are increasingly caught up in the web of abuse, with perpetrators using youngster’s devices – such as phones, tables and games consoles – to ‘monitor and maintain control over victims’.
Disturbingly, there was also a marked increase in the number of revenge porn cases – which Dr Dillon said was ‘devastating’ for victims.
‘You’re walking about your daily business and you don’t know who has seen what picture of you,’ she added. ‘It can leave a real sense of legitimate paranoia.’
The report demanded legislative and policy changes are put in place to keep place with the rapid developments in social media and smart tech.
Welcoming the report’s findings, Dr Dillon urged all victims of abuse to speak up, adding: ‘We have got a stalking service that will happily speak to any victim experiencing abuse.
‘The most important thing to remember is this is a crime – and it isn’t a crime that is that difficult to convict for because the evidence is there.’