How smart devices are exploited for domestic abuse

How smart devices are exploited for domestic abuse

The number of domestic abuse cases has increased dramatically since the UK’s Covid lockdown – and tech has played a role.

Smart speakers, tracking apps and key-logging software are among products that have made it easier for perpetrators to maintain control of victims and continue abuse.

Domestic-violence charity Refuge says more than 70% of those it provides support to have reported tech-related abuse within a relationship.

Two people who experienced abuse during the pandemic shared their stories with BBC Click.

They asked to remain anonymous for their own safety.

“When he left the house, that’s when I started to see that he was using the Ring doorbell camera to track me,” says Kate, who is using a pseudonym. She is referring to Amazon’s internet-connected security device. It triggers alerts when it detects motion in front of a home and allows live footage or recordings to be watched from afar.

“I could take the battery out of it if I wanted to, but I didn’t feel like I could because he would say to me, ‘You’re compromising our children’s safety’.

“I was worried that he would go to the police and try and suggest that I’m a bad mother.”

Another explained how her partner used Amazon’s virtual assistant to monitor her via a function that lets users remotely connect to enabled smart speakers and listen/speak via an intercom-like facility.

“He would set up all the accounts,” says Sue, who is also using an alias.

“He would set up family-sharing on things. There were various Alexa devices all over the property.

“He could drop in from outside or he could go to someone’s house and ring the Alexa when we were at home.”

Smart speaker illustration

Abuse experienced by men also increased during the pandemic.

The Respect Men’s Advice Line reports receiving 5,000 more calls during the start of the UK lockdown than in the same period the year before.

But women are still more likely to experience violence and harassment. Three-quarters of domestic abuse victims recorded by the police last year were female, according to the Office for National Statistics’ latest figures.

‘In control’

Dr Leonie Tanzer says she frequently comes across this issue of control in a study of gender and internet-of-things devices she is leading at University College London.

“The perpetrator, who very often tends to be male, is the person that purchases the device [and] maintains the device,” she explains.

“That gives that person a lot of control over both the environment they’re in but also the device admin settings.”

Both Sue and Kate’s experiences confirm this view.

‘We are all in this bubble in the house,” says Sue.

“Even when I leave, he can see my location through my [smart]watch, or my phone or my iPad or anything.

“I just realised how little control I had over mine and the kids’ life and how much he had. I had to get out.”

She says her partner locked her our of their shared Amazon account which had her credit-card details attached to it, giving him the ability to spend money she would then be obligated to cover – in effect a means of control.

“I rang up Amazon and I said I can’t take my cards off this account,” she recalls.

“They said, ‘Sorry, you just have to cancel your bank cards’.

“The companies should know what the products could be used for.”

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