Violette Gadenne, Research Lead | Madeline Rolfe, Senior Analyst
Thursday 20 October 2022
When it comes to violence against women and girls (VAWG), technology is a double-edged sword. Social media, messaging apps, texting and emails are used by perpetrators to make online threats and stalk people who are known to them. The Internet and communications devices also provide opportunities for abusers to target strangers and identify potential victims. Yet there may be a role for using technology against perpetrators to improve women’s sense of safety and prevent real world violence and abuse.
In September, in partnership with Forensic Analytics, Crest hosted a roundtable discussion to explore the links between technology and VAWG and identify gaps in evidence. We brought together experts from across policing, technology and victim services in a debate chaired by Deputy Chief Constable Maggie Blyth, national policing coordinator for VAWG. We were grateful for contributions from Tiggey May and Dr Emma Williams, who gave a presentation on Operation Soteria Bluestone, a new police approach to investigating rape.
A new strategy for tackling VAWG
Tackling violence against women and girls is one of the Government’s top priorities. In June 2021, after a lengthy ‘end-to-end’ review, it published a plan to improve the way rape cases are dealt with in England and Wales. The following month, partly in response to a number of high profile and disturbing crimes against women, including the murders of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, the Home Office published its Tackling violence against women and girls strategy. Now, there is a further opportunity to enhance safety and justice for women and girls with the Online Safety Bill, which contains measures to tackle harmful online content. The Bill is expected back in Parliament shortly.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council VAWG taskforce also recognises the importance of addressing the role of technology in facilitating abuse of women and girls. It is a focus of the VAWG delivery framework that is shaping the policing response nationally and includes ideas for:
A single online reporting route for violence against women and girls, so victims can report allegations and access the support they need, when they need it.
A digitally competent, confident and capable workforce that can relentlessly pursue perpetrators and protect victims.
‘Offender-hostile’ online environments designed to support people to call out abuse and misogyny
In addition, a new national strategic threat and risk assessment will develop a dynamic intelligence picture. Together, the measures aim to prevent violence against women and girls, pursue perpetrators and deliver better outcomes for victims in the criminal justice system.
The current focus: improving digital investigation capabilities
The Government has increasingly recognised the importance of developing digital investigative capabilities to tackle VAWG. In the End-to-End Rape Review it said it would:
“Identify technology gaps and work with industry to develop solutions to speed up and improve investigations whilst reducing unnecessary intrusion.”
During the roundtable, we discussed how the gaps were being addressed and considered what more could be done to use technology to improve VAWG investigations.
Operation Soteria Bluestone, which aims to shift the investigative focus in rape cases onto suspects, was highlighted as an example of best practice. Technology is used to ease the burden on victims, for example, by limiting how long smartphones and digital devices are taken away for, to examine for evidence. Another objective is to ensure police officers and staff have the equipment and training they need to carry out digital investigations into VAWG allegations.
As digital capabilities are strengthened, the quality of VAWG investigations are expected to improve with fewer delays. That will encourage victims and witnesses to stay with the process ensuring that more cases go to court.
The instrumental role of tech within VAWG
Our roundtable experts estimated that 90 to 100 percent of VAWG cases have a digital element, so the importance of improving the police’s digital investigative capabilities cannot be overstated. They highlighted a range of challenges:
The volume of digital evidence that police investigators are required to sift through outstrips current capacity
Outdated processes and equipment slow down digital investigations. For example, redacting evidence for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was seen as disproportionately time-consuming.
Training of officers in digital investigative techniques is inconsistent. Where training exists, there is a lack of specific training on the subtleties of VAWG.
Protocols on handling digital VAWG evidence are not hard to implement at force level, and there can be confusion among officers regarding how to collect, store and dispose of evidence in VAWG investigations.
To tackle the challenges, the experts suggested several ideas:
Specialist analysts who are well-trained in digital investigations should support police investigators by, for example, reviewing complex evidence and assisting with digital reviews.
Improved data sharing between criminal justice organisations, particularly with the CPS. It may need an update to the CPS protocol on digital evidence.
Adopting consistent practices of digital evidence review across police force areas. A standardised approach to training investigators in digital evidence review would be welcomed.
Although programmes like Operation Soteria Bluestone show positive steps are being made towards digitally-enabled investigations, it’s clear from our roundtable that there are still technology gaps and challenges. Resources must continue to be directed to fill the gaps to improve investigations and criminal justice outcomes for women and girls.
Our collective blind spot - the enabling role of technology in VAWG
Our roundtable participants said a better understanding was needed about the role technology plays in enabling violence against women and girls.
We live in a world where we spend more and more time online, so it is only logical that offending follows a similar pattern. Evidence suggests that this shift is already happening: the Revenge Porn Helpline (which helps victims of image-based sexual abuse) reported a 98% increase in cases in 2020 compared to 2019. The problem is particularly acute for younger people. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 26% of women aged 18-24 reported having been stalked online, compared to 8% of all internet users surveyed.
Although there is a wealth of knowledge about offending behaviour offline, our roundtable panel said we don’t know enough about how it translates into online behaviour and the role the digital environment plays in escalating problems. Some of the key gaps included:
A better definition of tech-enabled VAWG and how prevalent it is.
What is the role of algorithms, groupthink and the sense of anonymity that comes with online communications?
A clearer picture of online VAWG victimisation - who is most at risk? How does victimisation evolve over time? How do different vulnerabilities intersect online?
An understanding of how tech-enabled VAWG contributes to the wider VAWG picture: what is the link between online and offline offending?
Answering these questions will help police officers give victims prevention advice. Our roundtable experts said it is hard for those on the frontline to help women understand how to protect themselves from online VAWG, without pinning the blame on them.
Indeed, some women may not even know about the types of behaviour perpetrators use online. By shining a light on the problem, we could empower women to spot the warning signs and protect themselves. We could also help educate people from a young age about what is unacceptable - to encourage ‘bystander’ intervention so that those who see or hear problematic behaviour speak out.
Could technology also play a role in preventing VAWG?
Women are increasingly using mobile technology to help them feel safe. In the month after Sarah Everard’s death, there were 80,000 new users of the Hollie Guard app, one of many digital alert systems aimed at giving women quick (and anonymous) ways to report unsafe situations and seek support.
However, our participants explained that these developments on their own are not enough: they may help women feel safer, but they do not prevent risky or dangerous situations from arising. That’s why some initiatives have focused on the design of public places by crowdsourcing data from women on how safe they feel, such as the Lambeth Safer Streets initiative. It will be important to robustly evaluate these schemes to establish whether and how they help prevent VAWG.
Our roundtable experts were clear that there is value in continuing work on this topic, focusing on both the practical policing response to VAWG incidents, as well as refining our understanding of online VAWG.
Based on suggestions during the discussion, Crest is looking to develop programmes of work to:
Expand our understanding of online VAWG
Scope out avenues for prevention work, in particular with young people
Contribute to the growing body of evidence concerning best practice in digital investigation practices
More than anything, our roundtable has highlighted the value in bringing together people with different areas of expertise, sharing insights and keeping the conversation about this important subject going.
Please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute to the conversation.