By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
Sarah couldn’t figure out how her ex-boyfriend kept finding her.
She had changed phone numbers and mobile service providers. She moved in with friends, and changed houses a couple of times since then. She was as freelancer which meant her work schedule and location were unpredictable.
But she’d see his car at the beach car park when she was walking her dog, and he’d brush past her in the grocery store an hour.
Scared and frustrated, Sarah eventually searched her car and found a personal tracking device attached underneath.
The devices are available for as a little as $300 and can be purchased over the counter or online.
Stalkers have been known to place them into handbags and prams too because they are small and compact, and can be monitored via the internet.
Sarah is one of an increasing number of people stalked through the use of technology. And personal tracking devices aren’t the only method used.
There are bots and automated trolls programmed to threaten targets on their social media accounts. There are remotely-installed programs to monitor the way someone uses their phone, and spoofing services that mask a caller’s original number. Abusers can even pretend to be another real person – with text messages and phone calls seemingly originating from that other person’s number.
There’s technology to alter voices from male to female, or indeed vice versa, allowing perpetrators call banks and phone companies to impersonate their victim, and to close or even empty accounts.
Victims are being monitored by iCloud and even through the use of smart TVs – the list goes on.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 19 per cent of women (1.6 million) and 7.8 per cent of men (663,800) have been victims of stalking.
Stalking can take the form of loitering around homes or workplaces, or following and watching targets. Telephones or emails are used in almost half of the cases that involve women.
Stalking as domestic violence
Stalking is often a component of domestic violence. And we are becoming familiar with statistics suggesting that one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. And a quarter of all women in Australia have experienced physical or sexual violence in the form of a beating or rape, by their intimate partner.
But with the advancement of technology, police and frontline domestic violence workers say they are fighting an ongoing battle against technology, and that more often than not, smartphones are the weapon of choice.
Experts believe the key is to educate victims. They have found it can be harmful for victims to simply turn off their phones and shut down their social media accounts. This is because victims already feel alone and depressed, and further isolation can dangerously accelerate a downward spiral.
They point out that smartphones can be used in the war against cyberstalking – to collect evidence which can later be used to support a complaint. Victims can fight back by taking screen shots of abusive text messages, and can even use their phone’s camera and GPS co-ordinates to prove a person has breached an existing apprehended violence order (AVO).
The law in NSW
Section 13 of the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 prescribes a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and/or a $5,500 fine for anyone who “stalks or intimidates another person with the intention of causing the other person to fear physical or mental harm”.
The section provides that:
- The offence covers causing a victim to fear that their partner will be harmed,
- a person intends to cause fear of physical or mental harm if he or she knows the conduct is likely to cause that fear,
- The prosecution does not have to prove that the victim actually feared physical or mental harm, and
- The offence covers attempts.
Section 7 of the Act defines ‘intimidation’ as:
- harassment or molestation, or
- an approach by any means – including by telephone, telephone text messaging, e-mailing and other technologically assisted means – that causes fear for safety, or
- conduct that causes a reasonable apprehension of injury, or of violence or damage to any person or property.
Section 8 defines ‘stalking’ as including:
- “the following of a person about or the watching or frequenting of the vicinity of, or an approach to, a person’s place of residence, business or work or any place that a person frequents for the purposes of any social or leisure activity”.
The court can have regard to a pattern on behaviour when determining whether it amounts to intimidation or stalking.
Where an AVO is in place, section 14 of the Act makes it an offence to contravene that order. The maximum penalty is two years’ imprisonment and/or a $5,500 fine.
Subsection 14(4) states that “unless the court orders otherwise” a person who contravenes an AVO “must be sentenced to a term of imprisonment if the act constituting the offence was an act of violence against a person.”
Unauthorised access to, or modification or use of computer data, is an offence under section 308H of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which prescribes a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment for anyone who:
- causes any unauthorised access to or modification of restricted data held in a computer, and
- knows that the access or modification is unauthorised, and
- intends to cause that access or modification.
“restricted data” is that which is held in a computer, being data to which access is restricted by an access control system associated with a function of the computer.
The Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) contains a range of additional offences relating to the use of postal, telephone or internet services which can capture acts of cyber stalking.