Cyber stalking and technology-facilitated abuse – a rising problem in family law

Michelle Meares

At 10am on a Saturday morning in July 2011, Lisa Harnum plunged to her death from the 15th-floor balcony of her apartment in Liverpool Street, Sydney, next to Hyde Park. Simon Gittany, Ms Harnum’s de facto partner, was found guilty of her murder in a judge-alone trial before McCallum J and sentenced to a term of imprisonment for 26 years with a non-parole period of 18 years and a balance of term of eight years.

When sentencing, her Honour stated:

Whilst Mr Gittany was undoubtedly caring and attentive towards Ms Harnum in some ways, he sought throughout their relationship to deprive her of any real autonomy. He scrutinised her conduct both openly and covertly, keeping track of her movements with surveillance cameras installed in their unit and secretly monitoring her mobile telephone with spying software he had installed without her knowledge.1

A few days before her death, Ms Harnum packed some bags of clothes and gave them to the personal trainer to mind. By secretly reading her SMS messages, Mr Gittany became aware that she had done so. He confronted her with that information but lied as to how he had obtained it, giving her to believe that the personal trainer had betrayed her trust. He rang the counsellor and abused and threatened her. He then berated Ms Harnum in the sternest terms, making her kneel before him while he yelled at her that she was to do as she was told.2

In February 2011, Mr Gittany had installed an application on Ms Harnum’s mobile phone that allowed him to monitor her text messages without her knowledge or consent.3

Closed circuit cameras on the morning of her death recorded Ms Harnum trying to leave the apartment. The cameras then recorded Mr Gittany physically restraining her, placing his hand over her mouth and dragging her back into the apartment.4

The court was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that, in a state of rage, Mr Gittany carried her to the balcony and, as it was described during the trial, ‘unloaded’ her over the edge.5

Mr Gittany had had surveillance cameras installed inside and outside the apartment. The installer indicated that the direction of the cameras had been changed since installation. The court found that the accused had probably reorientated the cameras to facilitate observation of Ms Harnum.6 For at least the last five days of Lisa Harnum’s life, the pinhole camera setup by Mr Gittany in the apartment was monitoring her continuously.7

We cannot know whether Ms Harnum would have been able to successfully escape the abusive relationship she was in if Mr Gittany had not been able to monitor all her communications and movements, but the technology used by her killer undoubtedly placed her at significant risk and a lethal outcome occurred.

Tech abuse in 2024

Now, 13 years later, there are far more sophisticated technologies available for monitoring a person’s communications and movements. Apps available on the internet, either free or for a minimal monthly fee, advertise that once installed on a device, they may provide remote access to a person’s messages, photos, social media, geolocation, contacts, keylogging (which records what a person types on a device), and audio or camera access (sometimes in real time). Many of these apps are marketed as helping a person to keep their spouse or children ‘safe’ through enhanced tracking and surveillance functions.

Internet of Things and apps

The Internet of Things (‘IoT’) means covert audio and video monitoring of a person in their home is now possible on a previously unseen scale through Amazon Alexa, Google Home, doorbells, closed circuit TV cameras (‘CCTV’), smart speakers and baby monitors. If the abusive person shares or has shared a home or any device with the target, they could have access to devices or the accounts that control them.

Lifestyle apps such as Spotify, Menulog,, PayPal, and mobile banking, health apps like Fitbit, and dating apps can all reveal information about a person’s location and habits.

Shared Apple ID and iCloud accounts across multiple devices are a common method used by perpetrators to monitor their targets. Gifts of iPads and phones from controlling partners should raise a red flag due to their capacity to provide location data, access to all messages, photos and documents across devices, and administrator access for covertly installing the tracking apps described above on linked devices.

What is technology facilitated abuse?

The types of behaviour referred to above are now known as technology-facilitated abuse (‘TFA’). TFA conduct can include harassing behaviours (such as sending offensive, distressing or damaging communications towards or about a person online); sexual and image-based abuse (such as coercing online sexual acts or creating/sharing sexual imagery without consent); monitoring or controlling behaviours (such as unauthorised access to digital devices, gathering information about a person, or seeking to restrict them); and emotional abuse and threats (such as sending communications that threaten harm to the person or others.8 Recent studies into TFA found that ‘legal responses continue to play catch-up in taking TFA seriously and providing adequate supports and justice outcomes for victims.’9 This national survey of 4,986 Australian adults found that 1 in 2 people surveyed reported experiencing TFA and 1 in 4 reported perpetrating TFA.10

Watching the watchers

Even when those at risk of domestic and family violence have CCTV installed at their place of residence by domestic violence support services, the cameras themselves may be used as a further tool of surveillance by a perpetrator. The stream from these cameras can be accessed by the perpetrators if they have the login or through shared devices.

The protected person in a recent Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (‘ADVO’) is reported to have stated to police in her driveway, when they attended her property in response to her Triple Zero call, ‘[h]e’ll be able to see you on the cameras’. The ADVO defendant had allegedly hacked her CCTV account and was reportedly watching the CCTV camera feed remotely after he fled the property. The police call was made after the defendant had threatened the protected person and her daughter with a large hunting knife.

Coronial inquest timeline

A disturbing feature of coronial inquests into deaths in intimate partner fatalities is the victim reporting to friends, family and authorities prior to their death that they believe their phones are being tracked by the perpetrator. Hannah Clarke, who, along with their three children Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, was killed by her husband on 19 February 2020, reportedly told her mother before she died that she thought her husband ‘was tracking her phone and listening to her phone calls as he had questioned why she had phoned certain people’.11 On 16 January 2020, Hannah told a domestic violence service that her husband knew details she had not told him and that he may have installed spyware on her phone.12 On 29 January 2020, Hannah contacted a domestic violence service to advise them she had more evidence that her husband was tracking her phone and listening to her calls, and she requested a technical sweep of her phone.13 A technology sweep occurred on 11 February 2020, which identified a suspicious email that enabled the sender to access Hannah’s phone.14 Eight days later Hannah and her children were killed in their car on the way to school.

Safety planning

Safety planning and a high level of risk awareness is crucial for those working with those at risk of family violence.

• Be alert and aware of the risks.

• If you have concerns about your client, ask them questions to assess what steps may need to be taken to mitigate any risks. Some instructing solicitors may not have done this.

• If there is a risk, ensure your instructor has requested a safety plan from the Court Registry for any in-person court events.

• Ask your client what, if any, information should not be revealed in court or to the other party. Ensure this information is protected or redacted in any documents included in evidence or tender bundles containing subpoena records such as address, phone number, place of employment, and school enrolment information.

Resources available

• E-Safety Commissioner

• Technology Safety Australia

• Clinic to End Tech Abuse, Cornell University

• Coalition Against Stalkerware BN


1 R v Gittany (No 5) [2014] NSWSC 49 [7].

2 Ibid [10].

3 R v Gittany (No 4) [2013] NSWSC 1737 [70].

4 R v Gittany (No 5) [2014] NSWSC 49 [13].

5 Ibid [14].

6 R v Gittany (No 4) [2013] NSWSC 1737 [42].

7 Ibid [444].

8 Powell, A, Flynn, A, & Hindes, S (2022). ‘Technology-facilitated abuse: National survey of Australian adults’ experiences’, 14.

9 Flynn, A, Powell, A, & Hindes, S (2021). ‘Technology-facilitated abuse: A survey of support services stakeholders’ (Research report, 02/2021), 40.

10 Powell, A, Flynn, A, & Hindes, S (2022). ‘Technology-facilitated abuse: National survey of Australian adults’ experiences’, 8.

11 Inquest into the deaths of Hannah Ashlie Clarke, Aaliyah Anne Baxter, Laianah Grace Baxter, Trey Rowan Charles Baxter, and Rowan Charles Baxter, Coroners Court of Queensland, 29 June 2022, [62].

12 Ibid [394].

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

Michelle Meares

Second Floor Selborne Chambers