Domestic violence experts warn malicious software is increasingly being used to compromise victims’ computers and phones
Domestic violence experts have warned that the use of specialist technology that enables abusers to stalk victims online and via mobile phones is growing at an alarming rate.
A series of parliamentary answers has revealed that, in the 12 months up to April 2014, police received 10,731 reports of computers being compromised by spyware and malware (malicious software). Both can be used by abusers to gather information from someone’s computer or phone. They can allow abusers to view documents, photographs or passwords – and even turn on a device’s camera or microphone. Mobile spyware can also reveal a person’s location.
The real number of victims is likely to be considerably higher. “As most victims are unaware that they are being watched or are too scared to come forward, the real number of incidents could be up to 10 times that,” said Harry Fletcher, criminal justice director of the Digital-Trust, a new charity set up to help victims of cyber abuse.
The trust says it sees new technology being used frequently in cases of domestic violence, divorce, custody battles and stalking and warns that the practice is becoming “commonplace”. Other experts agree. “My research shows that over 50% of the time digital abuse is used within domestic violence,” said Dr Emma Short of the Cyberstalking Research Centre.
There are concerns that the huge rise in the use of covert surveillance software has left police forces struggling to keep up with demand for forensic examination of devices. The trust claimed that in one force it knew of 1,053 electronic devices that had been received for examination between January and August 2014, a 440% increase on the previous year.
Victims claim it takes up to 18 months for devices to be examined. This, the trust says, can cause time-critical intelligence and evidence to be lost, or put cases at risk of collapse. The time lag can also delay trials, creating further stress for the victims.
The falling cost of spyware is helping to fuel the increase in surveillance. A listening device that looks like an extension cord can be bought from Amazon for £65. A magnetic GPS tracking device that is attached to a car and gives its location to a mobile phone can be bought online for as little as £25.
Spyware that can control a computer can cost as little as £25. Sent in an email to a victim, the software is activated when an attachment, such as a photo, is opened. Once installed the abuser has access to the victim’s emails and instant-message conversations.
Specialist mobile spyware allows abusers to turn on the microphone and listen to conversations. The trust said it was aware of estranged husbands buying mobile phones for their children and adding spyware so that they could spy on their ex-wives. It also warned that social media could act as a trigger and cause abusers to become physically violent. In 2009 Camille Mathurasingh was murdered by her ex-boyfriend after she had posted a picture of herself with a new partner.
Fletcher said that there was now an urgent need for police to log each occasion when a criminal act involved the use of new technology. “The College of Policing believes that half of all offences reported to frontline police now have online or digital elements,” Fletcher said. “It is extraordinary that the government collect and record so few statistics about the fastest-growing crime in the UK.”