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The technology twist to domestic violence

Jun 30, 2018

Almost three years ago, an analytical article presaged the way technology would help perpetrators of domestic violence exercise greater control over their victims… “The real threat from a web of smart devices, or the Internet of Things (IoT) as it’s often called, is not a change in the behavior of abusers but rather the sheer scale of information which smart technology generates.”

Sure enough, DV hotlines are now hearing many survivors describe paranormal-like situations adding to their trauma. Air conditioner going off, thermostat turning up the heat, doorbell ringing without a soul in sight, code numbers of the front door digital lock changing every day, camera tracking activity, mobile phone recording private conversation….Tech smartabusers are exercising a different method of control and terror, remotely manipulating conditions at home, using apps on their smartphones connected to internet-enabled devices and appliances.

Tracking usage is easy to see as the devices contain sensors, record activity, and share and store data, such as the increasingly popular Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa.

Technology developed for greater comfort and greater security is turning into a kind of weaponry in the wrong hands.


What can be done?

Online technology magazine E&T sums it up: “Something that can be done now is to educate key stakeholders, domestic violence and abuse organizations, frontline support workers, police and the victims themselves in understanding IoT devices.”

Invariably smart systems are installed by male partners and most women do not have the apps that control the devices. While the recourse is to disable the devices, doing this even temporarily can be detected, and lead to more confrontation and conflict.

Legal Responses

Legal interpretation and implementation in this area is currently an open field. Talking to lawyers, New York Times reports “Lawyers also said they were wrangling with how to add language to restraining orders to cover smart home technology. Advocates are beginning to educate emergency responders that when people get restraining orders, they need to ask the judge to include all smart home device accounts known and unknown to victims.”

A challenge is that tech-savvy abusers have already figured out how to stay within the confines of existing laws: in the case of a restraining order, would remote dimming of lights in a home constitute a breach?

Frontline Support

Educating and training social workers is of utmost priority to help them guide survivors correctly. Awareness is growing. The director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence speaks of how the issue of technology comes up repeatedly in training sessions. Domestic violence organizations across the world may benefit from work of a research team at University College London which is studying deeply the interconnectivity of the Internet of Things and domestic violence. It proposes to bring out a guide on risk factors and how to negotiate the technology.  

Can Technology be Safer?

The very nature of IoT technology is dependent on sensors, cameras and microphones. The recording and buildup of information is a requirement for improved performance. Though at a SafeLives/Comic Relief ‘Tech vs Abuse’ Round Table, technology majors such as Google, Apple and Facebook were sensitive to safe technology demands, it is uncertain how far security issues will be addressed by the thousands of manufacturers who make smart devices.

Being Informed and Staying Safe

The irony is that these very smart devices and homes can empower survivors to keep themselves secure. Being informed, absorbing and using the technology, rather than rejecting it, seems to be the way ahead.

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