Drones used to stalk victims, in ongoing issue of drones and privacy

October 1, 2018 |

The ABC in Perpetrators using drones to stalk victims in new age of technology fuelled harassment  again highlights what has long been known about the potential of drones for being an effective privacy invasive tool. It also goes on to set out the range of ways new technology is being used to interfere with privacy and harrass.  All the while the law lags.

In the United States there have been specific state laws to restrain drones from being used to invade privacy.  They range from Act 2393 in Arkansas to invade privacy to Florida criminal code to forbidding drones being used to violate a person’s privacy.  There are also controls in Illinois and  Mississippi. In Australia there has been no proper regulation at a state or Federal level to specifically protect individuals or give them the right to deal with privacy invasive behaviour. The article below highlights the range of privacy intrusive

The article provides:

For mother-of-three Kim* a small barbecue in her backyard on New Year’s Eve was meant to be respite from months of harassment by her ex-husband. That was, until she saw the drone hovering above her head.

“I heard fans, or air, and I looked up and I saw a drone right above my head,” she said.

“It shot up really high and far away and flew to a parked car in one of the side streets.”

The Western Sydney woman is confident it was the work of her ex-husband who had that day been trying to discover her whereabouts.

“I knew it was him because he had tried every other means to get near us,” Kim said.

“My fear was he was going to come through the night under the guise of the local fireworks and take my children.”

Kim is one of many victims being stalked and harassed using a new generation of technology.

She lives in fear in a virtual prison to keep her children safe. Six security cameras surround the property, windows are sealed with sensors and the whole family wear personal alarms wherever they go.

Kim is so scared, she home-schools her children to reduce the chance of them being abducted.

“I do feel like we’re the prisoners. We’re the ones that have the social stigma,” she said.

What is catfishing?

Catfishing is when perpetrators create false identities on Facebook to stalk or intimidate others.

“Yet he’s free to roam.”

For Kim the drone is the latest in her ex-husband’s stalking attempts over the past two years, having breached court restraining orders twice.

He’s also twice breached an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO) after trying to catfish her and her children using Facebook.

‘She heard a distinctive whirring overhead

The federal Office of the eSafety Commissioner is trying to arm victims to fight these digital intrusions through its eSafety Women initiative.

“Really what I want to focus on doing is empowering women and other Australians with the strategies and the information that they need to be able to effectively combat this,” Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said.

The commission’s staff are hearing a rising number of anecdotal reports of misused drones as staff travel the country running workshops for up to 5,000 domestic violence advocates and law enforcement officials.

It is much needed information, as the office has received 478 adult cyber abuse complaints since July last year. This year there has been a 38 per cent month-on-month increase.

The new technology now only allows perpetrators to stalk victims, but to also avoid restrictions imposed by restraining orders.

Commissioner Grant said the misuse of technology will “never fail to surprise” her.

“We’ve heard stories of a woman who’s escaped interstate, and she started getting and humiliating texts from her former husband,” she said.

“She couldn’t figure out how he knew what she was doing until she went out to feed the chickens one day.

“She heard a distinctive whirring overhead and her former partner was monitoring her daily movements through a drone over her safe house.”

Droning, spoofing, catfishing and What’sFaking

It’s not just drones. The digital world is increasingly being mobilised in a range of ways to control and coerce domestic violence victims.

Alex Davis is a specialist in technology based abuse at Legal Aid NSW and says it is increasingly easy for perpetrators to harass victims.

“It’s really difficult for me to remember a case where technology hasn’t been a problem,” she said.

Ms Davis said there was another emerging method called spoofing, where offenders used an app or website to hack a victims phone so that calls appeared to be coming from a friendly source.

“A number might come up it might say Mum on your phone, but really the phone call is coming from someone else,” Ms Davis said.

Domestic violence workers told the ABC it was commonplace to discover spyware on the victims’ phones or for offenders to demand passwords and controlling access to devices.

“Smart phones have Find My iPhone which is already enabled, and if a person doesn’t know the other person has a password, that’s been used to track down a lot of our clients,” Ms Davis said.

In another case a man used an app called What’sFake to doctor a What’sApp messaging thread to fraudulently show his victim’s mother speaking negatively about her.

The whole house (and the car) is watching

Experts are also worried by the use of the so-called “internet of things”.

Everyday objects such as lights, air conditioners, security cameras, pool pumps, dog cams and even baby monitors can now digitally connected using home automation technology, giving perpetrators another way to control a home remotely.

“We have had some issues with smart TVs being used to covertly record people with in-built cameras,” Ms Davis said.

“We’ve also had issues with the way that technology is linked up, so that a person may have access to another person’s account, so that they’re accessing all of their incoming messages or calls.

“We also have issues of hidden cameras and hidden listening devices in everyday objects.

“Another issue that our clients have to really look out for is their children being given devices by ex-partners [because] often they’ve been loaded up with things.”

The car is also not a safe space.

The ABC has also learned of a case in northern Sydney where a perpetrator installed an electronic device in his partner’s car that sent him a text alert if she left the area and allowed him to remotely cut the fuel supply.

Common tracking devices have been known to be adopted for more sinister reasons.

“These are turning up in people’s cars, clothing and they’re being used so that a person is tracked and the person can try to hunt them down,” Ms Davis said.

Onus of proof needs changing: prosecutors

There are concerns laws are not keeping pace with digital developments.

Making your phone more secure:

  • Set a secure password and regularly change it
  • Turn off Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS when you don’t need them
  • Turn off all location services on apps
  • Block your number so it can’t be identified when you call people
  • If you suspect your phone is infected with spyware, restore it to factory settings
  • For more advice call, 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732

Prosecutors told the ABC their biggest challenge to combating these methods was the rules of evidence of the court, in particular the onus of proof.

Currently, prosecutors have to be able to show the court it was actually the perpetrator who hit ‘Enter’ on a harassing message.

The same goes for drones. Prosecutors have to be able to prove the perpetrator was flying the drone at the time.

NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Jones said many of the examples could be covered by existing trespass or stalking laws and encouraged people with suspicions to make a report.

He said tracking software and spyware were a particular problem, but he conceded the existing legislation did have limitations.

“A lot of these laws were written prior to surveillance devices being as prevalent as they are now and certainly prior to some of the social networking apps,” he said.

“It’s [a] very hard crime for the police to investigate and certainly to obtain sufficient evidence.

“If legislation was to change, that reverses onus, for example, that may well be a positive means for police.”

Police also find it difficult to get timely help from social media companies to help track down perpetrators.

Kim said Facebook was now explicitly mentioned in her ADVO and she would like to see drones included too.

“It’s very easy to become frustrated with the police, but it’s important for us to understand the police can only enforce the laws as they are,” she said.

“The laws need to be changing with the times because these men at the moment, they’re ahead.”

Commissioner Inman Grant believes the technology industry does have a role to play.

“If we’re really going to get ahead of the safety issues, the technology industry has to take a more active role in investing and innovating in safety on their platforms and that means doing the risk assessments upfront and building safety protections into their product and service development processes,” she said.

Technology both captor and saviour

Advocates said it was important for women to be aware: delete shared apps, cloud devices and even leave the phone behind.

The eSafety Commissioner has a special eSafety women’s site and will soon launch an online training portal for workers.

Ms Inman Grant said the site’s focus was on prevention and using technology appropriately in safe places, while acknowledging that for others it can be a lifeline.

“Technology-facilitated abuse is really abuse and its impact can be really devastating really, really damaging,” she said.

For Kim, technology has been both a captor and a saviour. But overall, she is hopeful.

“It is the single best decision I ever made to leave him and the transformation is in my children,” she said.

Ms Davis’ advice is for anyone with suspicions to get help either from a domestic violence service or a tech-savvy friend.

“I think that if anyone is fearful that their technology has been tampered with, then they need to trust their gut,” she said.

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