Smart devices: a new tool for domestic abuse

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Domestic abusers are increasingly using internet-connected smart devices to spy on their partners and control them at home, women’s charities said on Wednesday.

Victim support charity Refuge said it had seen nearly 1,000 cases of abuse in Britain this year involving devices such as home hubs, smart TVs and fitness trackers.

“Frontline staff at Refuge have recorded an alarming trend in the misuse of everyday technology by current or former partners to control, isolate, humiliate and dominate their victims,” chief executive Sandra Horley said in a statement.

“We have seen technological abuse in cases of domestic violence, stalking, economic abuse, trafficking and modern slavery, and rape and sexual assault.”

Smart devices are connected to the internet and can usually be operated remotely by the account holder.

They range from voice-activated home hubs through to connected cars, heating systems, fridges, door locks and CCTV.

Campaigners say many of these devices can be used to record and transmit data without the person under surveillance knowing.

There are also concerns that abusers might change home settings such as light levels or door locks to confuse victims.

“Abusers will use every means possible to control and abuse their partner – even using smart home devices to control, spy on and frighten the victim,” said Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We know that this form of abuse is often taken less seriously than abuse perpetrated in person, but it is commonly experienced as part of a wider pattern of domestic abuse and coercive control and must be taken seriously.”

Britain introduced laws in 2015 making “coercive or controlling behavior” a domestic violence offence carrying a penalty of up to five years in jail.

It was intended to close a loophole in the law that had previously allowed abusive partners to exert control with behavior that stopped short of violence.

In May of this year, a man was convicted of stalking his estranged wife after using an iPad installed as part of a smart home system to listen in to his ex-partner’s conversations, according to a report in The Times newspaper.

Other women feared they were going “crazy” after a range of unexplained events at home - a digital lock that repeatedly changed its code, speakers that suddenly turned on - only to realize their partners had manipulated them remotely, according to the New York Times.

Dr Leonie Tanczer of University College London, who researches domestic abuse, fears that incidents connected to smart devices may grow more common, as technology is increasingly exploited to gain power.

“We already have the phenomenon of revenge porn, or the misuse of one’s personal footage and material for purposes of coercion and control,” she said.

Tanczer urged manufacturers to consider more carefully how to safeguard users against the devices’ abuse.

“Just the question of ‘have you thought about how your devices could be misused?’ is one that should be standard in any production cycle,” she said.