UK surveillance culture may normalize use of technology for abuse

Acceptance of widespread surveillance in public life may put people at risk of becoming a victim of digital abuse by normalizing the idea that it is acceptable to monitor a partner’s online activities, according to the researchers.

Speaking at the recent roundtable on digital stalking and abuse, held by security firm Kaspersky to celebrate the recent International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Leonie Tankzer, a lecturer in International Security and Emerging Technologies, said that the problem was to some extent a reflection of accepted standards such as the presence of cameras CCTV everywhere, or even share data and location between friends.

“If you ask a lot of people,” she said, “they feel comfortable sharing their locations, by consent, freely with friends because they think it’s good, interesting, and helpful.”

“I’ve noticed that this pattern toward surveillance has become so socially acceptable that people think it’s not weird to check. [partner’s] the phone because my employer does too.”

The data, collected by Kaspersky, reveals that 11% of Britons believe it is acceptable to spy on their partners without their knowledge or consent, and a staggering 76% would feel justified in monitoring their partners’ online activity if they thought they were being unfaithful.

The study also found that 15% of people in the UK have been stalked digitally, 44% by a smartphone app, and many said they were forced to install stalkerware tracking apps on their mobile devices by a partner. Anecdotal evidence collected by the Tanczer research team at UCL indicates that some violators were forced to agree to surveillance to ensure their partners were “safe” after Sarah Everard was murdered in March 2021 by a Metropolitan Police officer.

Also, nearly a quarter of people were concerned about their partner violating their privacy, and more than half were worried about it being done via their smartphone. At the same time, Kaspersky found that more than half of people know the password for their partners’ device, highlighting the discrepancy between anxiety and behavior, and possibly providing more clues as to how monitoring is normalized.

Activist Gina Martin, who has successfully campaigned to make decorative wrapping illegal in the Voyeurism (Crimes) Act 2019 commented: “This research paints a disturbing picture that the UK has a very serious problem with internet stalking and domestic violence, two intrinsically linked.

“Digital stalking is a painful business that can lead to physical violence and abuse. It is essential that more people realize its risks and get the tools, advice and support they need to combat it.”

David Im, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky, echoed Martin’s call to spread education on the issue. “The growth in stalking programs is of great concern – and we fear these recent alarming numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. Stalkerware usually runs in the background without the infected person noticing.

“To avoid the risk of someone installing Stalkerware on your phone, it is always important to use a complex lock screen password and to avoid leaving the device unlocked. Stalkerware is the digital side of a much bigger problem, and if you think it has been installed, reach out to Refuge for support and the Coalition Against Stalkerware for some guidance on what steps you should take next.”

Alexa, spy on my wife

But the use of technology to monitor, stalk, and abuse partners in intimate relationships does not start and end with smartphones. Technology lecturer and writer Barry Collins told two stories from his own experience of how abusers can exploit other connected devices and apps.

In one instance, a friend of the speaker, who had issued a restraining order to her partner because he was violent towards her, had a feeling that he still knew what she was going to do because he had picked up details about her life, such as as she was talking to their children about him, that he could not know. Collins and his friend turned off her smartphone, but eventually found out that it was exploiting a legitimate entry feature on her Amazon Echo device.

The Drop-in feature allows for two-way communication between Echo devices, in effect turning them into an intercom. When active, the users’ echoes glow green, but in this case the victim would not have noticed this light and therefore did not make the connection.

An odd example Collins has dealt with is that of a woman I called worried about being stalked on Spotify. The investigation found that the victim’s abuser was following her on a music service – which does not provide a way to block followers – and that her activity could find out what she was up to.

He also called her friends, and abused the Spotify feature where users can create public playlists and upload images and texts assigned to them as a way to harass her further.

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