Weekly Family Law Update October 30, 2023

MPs warn of use of smart technology by domestic abusers

Imagine a woman sharing a house with her partner. She knows a little bit about technology – like most people she has a mobile phone, she uses a laptop for her social media, the house has smart speakers in it, and is protected by a camera system connected to the internet, so that it can be checked when they are out.

But she is not an expert in any of this technology, most of which was set up by her partner.

What she doesn’t know is that her partner is using the technology to track her movements, check her bank account, record what she is doing, and even to control things around the house, such as the lighting and heating.

It is a terrifying scenario, and one that is becoming increasingly common, according to a recent report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Connected technology

The report begins by pointing out how technology has come to influence every part of our lives, from smartphones to smart speakers, to fitness trackers, smart doorbells, smart TVs and smart home hubs controlling central heating. The list of such devices is increasing all the time.

And the number of these devices is extraordinary. The report estimates that there will be some 61 million smartphone users in the UK by 2024, and points out that 77 percent of UK adults own at least one smart home device, such as a smart speaker.

And as the report explains, many of these devices are connected wirelessly, via the internet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and so on, making them extremely powerful.

The report says that this technology can obviously bring great benefits, including home security, energy saving, health benefits, entertainment, and generally improving the quality of our lives.

But the report goes on to say that the technology also brings with it considerable risks, such as loss of privacy, online safety, and concerns about how connected devices can be used by domestic abusers.

Technology-facilitated abuse

This ‘tech abuse’ is widespread. The report informs us that according to Refuge, the largest specialist provider of gender-based violence services in the UK, 59 percent of the women and children it supported in 2020–21 experienced abuse involving technology.

The report tells us that there are several ways that connected devices are exploited for or exacerbate behaviours and patterns of domestic abuse:

  • Perpetrators are often the ones who purchase, set up and manage connected devices or force victims and survivors to divulge passwords to their accounts, establishing coercion and control.
  • Perpetrators can also use connected devices to overtly coerce and control victims and survivors, even when they are not physically present.
  • Perpetrators can use connected devices to covertly monitor survivors’ movements and locations, to listen in on conversations, collect recordings and intimate images for blackmail.
  • Perpetrators can use connected devices to retaliate against victims and survivors. This can include using remote and automated functionalities to manipulate devices or the material environment of a victim/survivor to “gaslight” and cause fear, confusion and distress to inflict emotional and psychological harm.

The report then gives a specific, and very concerning, example of how a woman who has gone to a refuge to escape domestic abuse may be found there by her abuser, via connected technology such as a smartwatch.

Tackling tech abuse

The report concludes by making recommendations as to how tech abuse can be tackled, including improving awareness of the problem, improving the criminal justice response, and producing a code of practice that establishes best practice for manufacturers, vendors and law enforcement.

Dame Caroline Dinenage, chair of the Committee, said: “The government must make it a priority to work with manufacturers to tackle this technology-facilitated abuse, which is only going to get worse in the future. The police and criminal justice system must be better equipped to deal with it, while victims should be properly supported.”

Meanwhile, anyone who fears they may be a victim of abuse should seriously consider their smart tech devices, how they may be used against them, and what they should do to prevent tech abuse. They should also seek expert advice as to how they can protect themselves against abuse.