The Crises in Digital Coercive Control

Demos’s November cybercrime report titled The Great Surrender provides a short and powerful statement: ‘one thing is certain we are under attack’.[1] The Great Surrender paints a picture of Britain and America in crises as order and society is uprooted by the infrastructure of the internet led 4th industrial revolution.

The true scale of cybercrime is unknown. Demos found that 70% of victims never reported the crime.[2] Previously the City of London has given the figure of 80% of unreported cybercrimes.[3] Of those that do report cybercrime, dissatisfaction is great. 50% expressed disappointment with Action Fraud, the UK’s National Fraud and Cyber Crime Report Centre.[4] Moreover, of the inadequate number of cybercrimes that have been reported, very few result in arrests as in the United States less than 1% resulted in convictions.[5]

The qualitative and quantitative data on digital coercive control provides the rawest articulations of how technology is increasing violence within society. ONS data from 2019 to 2020 showed there was a 110% increase in stalking cases, of which Paladin, the national stalking advocacy group, says most involve a cyber element.[6] This makes stalking the most significant new crime in the United Kingdom. Cumulatively the ITV Tonight programme has recorded an increase of 1800% in cyberstalking cases from 2014 to 2018.[7]

A five-year national survey in Australia emphasised the increase of digital coercive control through the National Survey of Technology Abuse and Domestic Violence. Some of the uses of cyberstalking are novel and chilling. There has been a 244.8% increase in respondents seeing perpetrators use GPS for the tracking of victim survivors.[8] Partners have been targeted through their offspring, with a ‘346.6% increase in children being given phones to contact and control their mothers’ and a ‘254.2% increase in the use of children’s social media accounts by perpetrators’ to contact guardians.[9] These numbers read like a society where social bonds are dissolving through the utilisation, weaponization and deployment of technology. A UK investigation into digital coercive control, similar to the WESNET survey, is greatly needed.

One of the most valuable pieces of data from the Australian National Survey investigation was a comment from a domestic abuse practitioner explaining how the impact of digital coercive control was: ‘unmeasurable. More than anything else, like rape, torture etc. That I’ve seen over the years, abuse with technology is so invasive and psychologically destabilising’.[10] This comment makes it clear that we are witnessing a societal mutation different to previous forms of violence and domestic abuse. Another respondent emphasised that the police were failing to conceptualise this new beast, writing that ‘high levels of coercion and control are actually the best indicator of risk to the victim rather than physical violence’.[11] The qualitative data suggests that society has failed to effectively conceptualise the risk of digital cyberstalking and harassment, generally relying on heuristic tools and behaviours from a pre-internet age.

Andy Clark and Steve Chalmers develop the idea that the importance of internet of things devices is so much so that they are an extension of our minds. The ethical consequences of this would mean destroying someone’s technology would be ‘as damaging and reprehensible as a bodily attack’, thus legally cyberstalking, stalker ware or hacking crimes could be interpreted as a form of physical assault.[12] The violence of cyberstalking tools like stalkerware should not be underestimated, with one charity specialist suggesting that because of the anonymity provided and the capacity for violence, the introduction of these tools was worse than the introduction of guns into British society.

The accounts from the domestic cases may be symptomatic of an economy where surveillance is employed, even encouraged, in the workplace. The American Management Association suggests that at least 66% of US companies monitor their employees Internet use, 45% log keystrokes and 43% track employees’ emails.[13] Outside the context of income, the deployment of these methods emphasise the true face of digital coercive control.

You would think that if the means of securing law and order faced such grave threat, we would be mobilizing our civic, state and media apparatus towards effectively solving these problems. With relative silence from the press, a government who seems conscious of the problem but uninterested in action and a charity sector who are left burdened with providing the support the police can’t, it is accurate to describe technology facilitated control as one of the great modern threats to living lives of qualitative value.[14]

Stephen Pinker’s book Angels of Our Better Nature: A History of Violence argues that Hobbes’ view of violence is an effective theory consistent throughout violence’s history. Hobbes provides three reasons for anarchical violence: Violence is used first in competition, with and over their wives, children and property. Secondly, to defend themselves and thirdly for reputation.[15] With an impotent parliament, uninterested 4th estate, and the absence of an effective police force, the internet infrastructure has uprooted traditional institutions and created conditions for violent anarchy. State, media and civil society should act with the greatest urgency, for right now it is the charities, The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the Cyber Helpline, Women’s Aid and Action Against Stalking providing the greatest insight towards the 4th Industrial Revolution’s grossest products. If society cannot solve basic functions of law and order, then our governance systems and democracy will be called into question.

Demos are defending this gap in governance providing effective solutions for dealing with the cybercrime crises, my favourite being the establishment of a National Reporting Hotline for fraud and cybercrime with a simple three digit number providing the example of ‘119 for Cybercrime’. [16] This would serve the function of a) showing that victims experiences of cybercrime matter to the government and to law enforcement and b) removing much of the confusion around the reporting, which prevents victims from seeking help.

The need to reform the police is great, with Steve Kavanagh, Britain’s highest ranking British policeman, describing how ‘this is the most profound shift the police have experienced since [Sir Robert] Peel [the Conservative statesman considered the father of modern policing]. We will adapt in a way more fundamental than anything since Peel’s reform’.[17] In conversations that I have had with specialists there has been emphasis on the need for disruptive police measures to create a sense of deterrent. I have previously written about the need for a cyber specialist police force in every geographical location in the United Kingdom.

According to Pinker the ‘decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species’ and therefore the emergence of tools that threaten peaceful society should be addressed very seriously.[18]


[1] Demos, The Great Surrender, November 2020, page 5  https://demos.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/The-Great-Cyber-Surrender.pdf

[2] Demos, The Great Surrender, pg 12

[3] D. Drinkwater, ‘London police chief admits cyber‐crime failings’, SC Magazine, 15 April 2015, http://www.scmagazineuk.com/london-police-chief-admits-cyber-crime-failings/article/409167/

[4] Demos, The Great Surrender, pg 29

[5] Demos, The Great Surrender, pg 31

[6] ONS, Crime in England and Wales: year ending June 2020, [28/10/20] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/crimeinenglandandwales/yearendingjune2020 [accessed 01/11/20]

[7] ITV, Tech Abuse: Stopping the Stalkers, 8th of January 2020 (https://www.itv.com/news/2020-01-09/tech-abuse-stopping-the-stalkers-tonight) [accessed 17/02/20]

[8] Woodlock, D., Bentley, K., Schulze, D., Mahoney, N., Chung, D., and Pracilio, A., (2020). Second National Survey of Technology Abuse and Domestic Violence in Australia. WESNET Pg 3

[9] Woodlock, D., Bentley, K., Schulze, D., Mahoney, N., Chung, D., and Pracilio, A., (2020). Second National Survey of Technology Abuse and Domestic Violence in Australia. WESNET Pg 3

[10] Woodlock, D., Bentley, K., Schulze, D., Mahoney, N., Chung, D., and Pracilio, A., (2020). Second National Survey of Technology Abuse and Domestic Violence in Australia. WESNET Pg 4

[11] Woodlock, D., Bentley, K., Schulze, D., Mahoney, N., Chung, D., and Pracilio, A., (2020). Second National Survey of Technology Abuse and Domestic Violence in Australia. WESNET Pg 36

[12]  L. MacFarquhar, The Mind Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark, The New Yorker, [26/03/2018] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/02/the-mind-expanding-ideas-of-andy-clark [27/10/2020]

[13]American Management Association, The Latest on Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance, (April 08, 2019) https://www.amanet.org/articles/the-latest-on-workplace-monitoring-and-surveillance/ [accessed 24/11/20]

[14] See the All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violences 2017 report on tackling domestic abuse in the digital age http://www.womensaid.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/APPGReport2017-270217.pdf

[15] S Pinker, Angels of our Better Nature, Penguin (2011), 56

[16] Demos, The Great Surrender, pg 7

[17] C Miller, Wired, [26.10.20] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/british-police-cybercrime-hacking [22/08/18]

[18] Pinker, Angels of our Better Nature, pg 771