UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Francesca Stevens - Research Assistant, Gender and IoT

Can you briefly describe what your research project is about?

Our research project’s focus is on the applicability of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (CMA), and to analyse its relevance for technology-facilitated abuse (tech abuse). At this current time, tech abuse is not a domestic abuse offence per se, however, activities including limiting someone’s technology use, tracking a person’s online behaviour, or installing malicious software (i.e., spyware) are offences that can also fall under the CMA. This legislation is traditionally associated with unauthorised access to computer material, for example for financial gain whereby an individual hacks into a business’s computer server in order to access funds, but the Act may also be used to prosecute Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) tech abuse perpetrators. However, one of the few existing studies into the CMA has demonstrated that a limited number of perpetrators had previously been convicted of domestic abuse. We, therefore, set out to examine and analyse court cases in England and Wales in which the CMA was of relevance (since its introduction in 1990). We extracted cases from the following legal databases: Westlaw, LexisNexis and Bailii, and then systematically analysed the features of these cases, examining the extent and nature of domestic violence/IPV cases in CMA offences, as well as identifying how the use of technology in domestic violence/IPV cases has evolved over time.

Furthermore, we also conducted a systematic search of court cases that were of relevance to domestic abuse within England and Wales using the same three legal databases as with the CMA systematic review. We used a time-limited dip sample (~ last six months) due to the vast number of court cases that take place where the law report involves some form of mention or reference to domestic abuse. This additional systematic review meant that we were able to examine: (a) court cases that have taken place during the last six months that were of relevance to domestic abuse; (b) cases where tech abuse had occurred; (c) technologies utilised to carry out such abuse; and (d) sentencing types across a few cases which were directly concerned with domestic abuse between two individuals.

How is it different from other research projects on the topic?

To our knowledge, this is the first research project which has systematically analysed court cases relating to the CMA, in order to better understand the features and dynamics of each case, including the intricacies of the offence at hand, the possible sentence and outcome and relevance to tech abuse and IPV. We are seeking to improve our knowledge on tech abuse perpetrators, the technological enablers of domestic abuse and the use of the CMA in relation to prosecuting such offences. This research has allowed us to directly address the Home Office’s interest in studying technological enablers of domestic abuse and develops our understanding of tech abuse perpetrators. The latter, to date, has not yet been subject to any analysis and produces insights that we think will benefit research, policy, and practice.

What are you working on now to prepare for the next stage of the project?

To date, this research has been funded by the Home Office Domestic Abuse Perpetrators Research fund. At the end of May, we submitted our final report detailing our findings so far. We have recently submitted another research funding application to REPHRAIN for funding, as we have a myriad of additional avenues that we wish to explore and investigate.

We are also hoping to be able to write a journal paper for our current findings so that our research is able to be disseminated to the wider community.

What do you find exciting about this project?

My academic research is in the cyber abuse sphere, and IPV and tech abuse are of course a crucial element in this field and one that continues to need great focus and attention. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how technology has been utilised by offenders within domestic abuse contexts, including IPV, and it is of great importance that we continue to research, explore relevant legislation such as the CMA and how it could be more widely used regarding prosecutions, and challenge its use in order to better protect victims going forward.

To have had the opportunity to conduct systematic reviews of legal cases has been challenging (in a positive sense) and fascinating, and has certainly added an exciting and novel element to this research.

It has also been an honour to work so closely with Dr Leonie Tanczer (the Principal Investigator on this project), whose work in the field is an inspiration to me.