For billions of people around the world, life at home has taken on a new significance this year. Flats and houses have become workplaces, gyms, schools and living spaces all rolled into one by national lockdowns.
It has also meant that many of us are spending more time than ever with the gadgets we have welcomed into our homes – so-called “smart” devices connected to the internet that can be controlled with our voices or via apps on our phones.
From virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google Home, to smart light bulbs, kettles, security cameras and thermostats, they are collectively known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Many of our household appliances now come embedded with sensors and the ability to connect to wireless networks, allowing them to gather data about how we use them, and communicate with other devices in our homes.
You might also like:
The hope is that smart devices can save us time and effort in the home by helping us digitise and automate our lives. It is hard not to enjoy the convenience of requesting a world news update, turning lights on and off with a simple command, or having a thermostat that can learn by itself when to heat your rooms based on your daily movements.
More of us are welcoming smart devices such as voice controlled assistants, robotic vacuums and smart bulbs into our homes (Credit: Getty Images)
They are designed to make our lives more convenient, save us time and keep us safe.
Take the internet-connected video doorbells that many people now have beside their front door. They make it possible to see who has come to call and even talk to them without having to open the door and risk exposure to the coronavirus. Automated devices inside the home, meanwhile, reduce the risk of viral transmission. According to the global technology market firm ABI Research, the sales of smart devices is set to increase by as much as 30% (compared to the same time last year) as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. “A smarter home can be a safer home,” a research director at ABI Research recently said.
But there are some who fear smart devices like these may actually pose a risk to the very people who share their home with them – that these tools of convenience are being turned into weapons of domestic abuse.
Technology is providing new opportunities for abusers to control, harass and stalk their victims
Although there are many ways abuse and control can manifest in households, technology is providing new opportunities for abusers to control, harass and stalk their victims. The mobile phone, in particular, can provide a way of tracking and monitoring the activity of a partner or a child without their consent or knowledge. A 2018 study by researchers at Cornell Tech in New York even found that the developers of apps designed to track devices seem to expect them to be used in this way. When they asked 11 companies who had developed “child safety” or “find my phone” apps if their product could be used to “track my [partner’s] phone without them knowing”, eight replied to say they could.
With a growing number of devices in our homes capable of gathering data about our movements and daily behaviour, the Internet of Things has the potential to transform how this sort of technology-enabled abuse can take place. Internet-connected video doorbells and cameras make it possible to watch what someone is doing from anywhere in the world. Sensors on doors can reveal when someone leaves the house, while the use of lights with smart bulbs can show their movements between rooms.
Internet-connected locks can restrict movements into certain rooms or even keep someone from leaving their home. Voice-controlled virtual assistants can provide a detailed breakdown of questions it has been asked and search history, personal data that can easily bring relationships into conflict.
These systems also tend to require an administration account, which gives a single person in a household a password-protected way to control the system. Put all these aspects together it seems like smart homes are inadvertently built to allow one person to control and monitor the life of another.
While most smart home technology is designed to make our lives easier or safer, it can also be used to control and harass (Credit: Getty Images)
“No IoT developer in Silicon Valley builds the system thinking about the misuse of those technologies,” says Leonie Tanczer, lecturer and lead investigator of the Gender and IoT project at University College London, which has been looking at ways smart devices in our homes can be turned into tools of domestic abuse. “They built them on the premise of a conventional family [and] just assume that anyone who cohabits a space is happy with [their] data being collected.”
But that’s not always the case. In 2018, one of the first known court cases for IoT-related abuse led to an 11-month prison sentence. Ross Cairns was found guilty of eavesdropping on his estranged wife through the microphone on a wall-mounted tablet used to control the heating and lights in their home. Hearing her say that she no longer loved him, he arrived at the doorstep of the home they once shared to confront her. “Oh, you don’t love me anymore?” he reportedly said.
The situation quickly escalated. Cairns pushed his wife in front of their two children, spat on the windscreen of her car, and insulted her.
This case is an unfortunate snapshot of many cases of domestic abuse. Although historically defined by physical acts of violence, our understanding of domestic abuse is rapidly changing.
“The outdated perception about violent crime, ranging from common assault through to more serious offences, does not understand the true nature of domestic abuse,” said Robert Buckland, the UK’s secretary of state for justice, while discussing the country’s recent domestic abuse bill at the House of Commons. “It ignores the insidious, controlling or coercive behaviour, and the psychological abuse that, bit by bit, changes what may start as a loving and equal relationship into one that is completely unequal and controlling, where, without the victim realising it, they are turned into somebody who is being abused.”
Like a virus, domestic abuse also spreads through close contact
Tech abuse doesn’t start and end with location tracking. When smart home technology in a dwelling is controlled by just one person, it can strip control from the others living there. Surveillance can easily develop into active stalking, and what was once invisible becomes a tangible feeling of threat or a physical confrontation. Too often, heated moments can escalate into violence.
While domestic abuse can affect anyone, it disproportionately affects women. Around the world, roughly a third of women have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse from their intimate partner. Such acts leave a wake of depression, abortion, lower birth weights in children, and a higher risk of HIV. In some cases, abuse can escalate to murder. Around 38% of all women who are murdered globally are killed at the hands of their current or former partner.
“Domestic violence is endemic,” says Louise Howard, professor of perinatal psychiatry at King’s College London. “It’s far, far more common than people realise”.
Like a virus, domestic abuse also spreads through close contact. A study from Lebanon published in 2017, for example, found that children who witnessed violence in their household were three-times more likely to become perpetrators of intimate partner violence as adults.
Incidents of domestic abuse have increased dramatically since families became confined to their homes by the pandemic lockdown (Credit: Getty Images)
There is alarm that the measures implemented to keep people safe from the coronavirus may have also inadvertently led to shocking increases in domestic abuse. According to the World Health Organization, its member states have reported a 60% increase in emergency calls by women subjected to violence by their intimate partners in April this year, compared to the previous year. The UN’s Population Fund has warned that if lockdowns were to continue for six months, they expect an extra 31 million cases of gender-based violence globally. Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the UN, called it a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence”.
The scale of tech abuse is largely unknown. In the UK, the women’s charity Refuge reported 920 cases of tech-related abuse from only January to August 2019. But that’s only one charity – one service that victims and survivors can turn to for support. In the US, domestic abuse charities report people contacting them with examples of smart thermostats and smart speakers being used against them by their partners. The room temperature suddenly increases. Music blares out of the speakers in the middle of the night. The code to the front door changes every day without explanation.
According to cyber security experts Kaspersky, the number of people who have discovered so-called “stalkerware” – software designed to monitor messages on a device, record screen activity, track its location and give access to its cameras – increased by 35% in the first eight months of 2019 compared with the previous year, with 37,532 incidents of it being found on people’s phones, tablets and laptops. Of course, many more could be totally unaware that such apps have been installed on their devices.
In a world of superfast broadband and instant voice commands, victims of IoT-related abuse have few helplines or support groups to turn to. Refuge is the only charity in the UK to have its own tech abuse team dedicated to this growing problem. Most charity support workers, Tanczer has found, don’t know what IoT means or what a smart hub can do.
If one person is the account administrator of everyday items like the heating system and washing machine, they can each be used as tools of coercion and control
Instead of providing assistance and support, helplines may even exacerbate the abuse. A common suggestion for anyone who suspects that they are being watched might be to change the password on their devices, for instance. But when a partner realises that the security information has been changed, they might become suspicious and confrontational over this abrupt shift in their once-shared smart home.
Equally, not changing passwords or disconnecting from all previous accounts after leaving an abusive relationship is just as dangerous. It might allow the perpetrator to influence a person’s life from afar, perhaps to learn where they live or who they might be dating.
It isn’t possible to have a single advice leaflet that can help every victim of IoT-related abuse, says Tanczer. But when someone calls for support, they should be able to speak with someone who isn’t just familiar with the latest Amazon Echo or Google Home Hub but can also evaluate the risk of taking certain actions given a person’s current circumstances.
Such a system has already taken shape in Australia. Under the guidance of the eSafety commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, the Australian government has a centralised tech abuse unit that victims and survivors can call for up-to-date, IoT-savvy support.
The ability to control household appliances such as lights, door locks and heating remotely can strip a sense of control from others in the home (Credit: Getty Images)
Keeping laws in line with emerging technology is challenging, but in many cases the people buying the technology still have to figure out what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. “The technology is changing, society is trying to catch up and adapt,” says Jason Nurse, a computer scientist at the University of Kent in England, who studies inside and outside threats to cybersecurity. “If someone was in a room reading a book most people wouldn’t walk in and just turn off the lights and leave. Because, why would you do that? But in IoT incidences, if you can turn off someone’s smart light from a remote location, hey, that’s having a laugh.”
Over time, however, similarly unusual happenings might make you question the equality of your relationship. “It often takes the accumulation of minor things until you realise, actually, I’m in an unhealthy relationship that’s not normal,” Tanczer says. If one person in the household is the account administrator of everyday items like the heating system, kettle and washing machine, they can each be used as tools of coercion and control. If these devices stop functioning properly, only one person can put things straight again – a classic method of enforcing dependence.
Consumers need to be more aware of what they are bringing into their homes when they buy devices that work as part of the Internet of Things, argues Irina Brass, a lecturer in regulation, innovation, and public policy at University College London, who studies emerging technologies. “I think awareness is fundamentally lacking at the moment,” she says. “Beforehand, you would have one particular device or, say, maximum, two devices: your computer and your phone that would be connected to the internet. But now, increasingly, you have a number of devices in your home environment... the connectivity aspect of it is quite invisible [and] consumers are not aware of what this connectivity brings.”
Currently, smart devices are actually still relatively dumb. Their core feature is their wireless capability and connection to other devices in the home. The “smart” label is a misnomer. But that is likely to change. As IoT systems make greater use of artificial intelligence and become more automated, we all need to teach ourselves about just how they can be used and misused.
* Alex Riley is an award-winning science writer who is currently working on a book into the treatment of depression. He is @alex_l_riley on twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.