Very smart – and a tool of domestic abuse

House of the future: Around 2.4 million adults experienced domestic abuse in the UK last year. © iStock

Could smart homes increase domestic abuse? As our houses get ever more full of technology to make life more convenient, the possibility of using it for abusive purposes is increasing.

The alarm bleeps: 7am.

As you open your eyes, the blinds go up to let in the sun. You use your phone to check there is milk in the fridge for cereal. While you brush your teeth, the bathroom makes sure you are healthy. The light goes off behind you and the kitchen starts playing your favourite song. Finally, Google Nest Hub unlocks the front door and you step outside.

In the 90s, when Bill Gates built his high-tech house, Xanadu 2.0, this was the stuff of science fiction. Now – although it might not be commonplace – it’s not so strange.

The Internet of Things is transforming how we live. The benefits are widely celebrated. Smart homes, we are told, are efficient, convenient, and more secure.

But more secure for whom? Alarm bells are ringing about a negative consequence of household technology: an increase in domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is not just a matter of physical violence. The UK charity Refuge describes it as “a pattern of behaviour on the part of the abuser designed to control his partner”. (Although men suffer from domestic abuse, the majority of victims are women.)

With apps, cameras, and microphones monitoring every room of a house, tech is creating new ways “for abusers to control, harass, and stalk their victims”, writes journalist Alex Riley.

Password-protected apps give the password-holder power to control the environment in scary and confusing ways. Victims have reported changes in temperature, music coming on in the middle of the night, and the front door code changing every day.

One survivor of tech abuse spoke of how her partner installed cameras for “security” which were then used to spy on her.

In April, the World Health Organisation reported a 60% rise in calls reporting domestic violence across Europe. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated patterns of abuse as households are forced to remain in lockdown together.

This has drawn important attention to the issue, but the virus is not a cause. Domestic abuse will remain a problem after it has passed – even as our homes continue to get “smarter”.

So, could smart homes increase domestic abuse?

Smarter not safer

Without question. Domestic abuse is about power and control – not just physical violence. The growth of domestic technology has made it easier for abusers to manipulate victims. The issue must be addressed by increasing understanding of the dangers of smart household devices, supporting better privacy settings on apps, and ensuring that laws protecting domestic abuse victims cover tech abuse.

On the other hand, smart home technology could help protect victims of abuse and bring those responsible to account. In the same way that a victim can be monitored and spied on, patterns of abuse and manipulation can be recorded and used as evidence. The key thing is empowering everyone to understand the technology and how to stay in control of it.

You Decide

  1. Are the benefits of smart homes worth the risks?
  2. What is more important: privacy or convenience?

Activities

  1. In the expert links, look at the Childline page on domestic abuse and the Refuge page on tech abuse. Design an information leaflet on how to spot tech abuse and what to do about it.
  2. Imagine you are a lawyer drafting new rules to prevent household technology from being used in an abusive way. What three things would you require technology companies to do to make devices safer for everyone?

Some People Say...

“And when they spy on us, let them discover us loving.”

Alice Walker, US poet and novelist, best-known for her book, The Color Purple

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Over 15 million UK homes (57%) are now regarded as “smart” – having at least one device to control lighting, security, heating, or another facility. The charity Refuge defines tech abuse as the use of technology to “stalk, isolate, and control women”. While men could be subject to tech abuse, the large majority of victims are female. It forms an increasingly common aspect of domestic abuse: technology is ever more present in the home and the knowledge of how to use it is unevenly spread.
What do we not know?
The true number of people suffering domestic abuse is very difficult to find out because most cases are not reported. It is a “hidden crime” which happens in the private space of the home. This makes it very hard to know how widespread tech abuse is, or if it is increasing domestic violence in general. It is certainly likely that it is making it worse where it is already happening, as technology gives abusers new ways to control and manipulate victims.

Word Watch

Google Nest Hub
A popular smart hub, putting control of various household technologies and apps in the same place.
Bill Gates
Founder and former CEO of Microsoft, the company responsible for popularising household computers in the 80s (and still one of the major global tech companies). His house on the shores of Lake Washington is called Xanadu 2.0. It took seven years to build and is seen as an early example of a smart home.
Internet of Things
The phrase (often abbreviated to IoT) is used to describe the connection of once “dumb” objects – like lights, radiators, fridges, doorbells, toilets, and so on – to the internet, so that they can collect data and operate more responsively.
Exacerbated
Made worse.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.