Why we need an ethical approach to tackling tech-enabled VAWG

Tech abuse can have a devastating impact on the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of the victim. It can also isolate the victim from their support networks and make them feel unsafe and insecure online and offline, as Giles Herdale explains in his contribution to the Tackling VAWG and RASSO Impact Days.

Jul 31, 2023
By Giles Herdale
Giles Herdale

Testimony from victims highlights the devastating impact tech abuse can have on them: “People don’t realise how badly verbal harassment and cyberbullying affects you. I wish they had hit me in the face and gotten it over with, because what they said to me, sticks to me to this day. It affected me into the person that I am today.”

The first National Police Chiefs’ Council violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategic threat and risk assessment (STRA) published in May, highlights for the first time the policing perspective of the extent and impact of online and tech-enabled VAWG as a national threat, alongside rape/sexual offences, domestic abuse and child abuse.

Online abuse is a highly gendered harm, with women up to 27 times more likely to experience it than men – 36 per cent of women have experienced online abuse on social media, rising to 62 per cent of young women. Intersectionality (the inclusion of additional protected characteristics such as visible minority, disability and/or LGBTQ+ status) exacerbates this.

And there is growing evidence of the links between offline and online offending, with up to a third of domestic abuse survivors reporting online harassment, abuse or control from a current or former partner. The STRA, which will be reviewed annually, is a key step in the police response to VAWG and will guide forces as they relentlessly pursue abusers and deliver justice and support for victims.

All of which highlights the need for effective action to address the harms caused by such abuse.

With public trust and confidence in the policing of VAWG already in need of rebuilding, there is a major imperative in showing that such action is proportionate and supported by victims and survivors.

The experience of so-called ‘digital strip searches’ of mobile phone data extraction in rape investigations led to a public outcry, leading to an ICO investigation that found that police forces were not giving enough consideration to “necessity, proportionality and collateral intrusion”.

Claire Waxman, London’s victims’ commissioner, commented: “This deters rape victims from pursuing the justice they deserve, and leaves them traumatised and lacking trust in our justice system”. Ultimately this has led to a new legislative framework and statutory code of practice for mobile phone extraction, but with a major rebuilding of public trust in policing required.

This illustrates the danger of policing taking public trust for granted. With the current spotlight on policing response to VAWG there is little prospect of that being the case in the near future. However, it is also the case that the lessons from the digital strip search experience must inform the future capability development. This is a point made forcefully in the Operation Soteria Bluestone year one review (the evidence-based response to improving rape investigations and criminal justice system outcomes), which emphasises a more proportionate approach to digital data extraction and the importance of building and maintaining the trust and confidence of victims and survivors: “There is an overwhelming consensus of victims and their supporters involved in Operation Soteria Bluestone, that victim voices must be at the heart of any force improvement plan alongside transparency and feedback.”

This victim-led approach is very much at the heart of the response to rape and sexual offences, and wider VAWG offending, with the first principle being putting public trust and confidence at the heart of the response.

The approach being taken by the RASSO technology partnership board – established to oversee the work to implement Soteria technology – is based on building a collaborative approach, with policing working with industry, academia and civil society to ensure effective and proportionate responses to data collection and analysis.

techUK is playing a central role in this work, through the joint RASSO and VAWG working group, and over coming months will have a key contribution in addressing the harms caused by tech-enabled and online VAWG.

Giles Herdale is an independent expert on digital investigation. Originally published as part of the techUK ‘Tackling VAWG and RASSO with Tech’ Impact Days – https://www.techuk.org/resource/why-we-need-an-ethical-approach-to-tackling-tech-enabled-vawg-tackling-vawg-and-rasso-impact-days.html

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