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How digital devices are being used to enable domestic abuse

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Susan Devaney
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A list detailing how digital devices are being used to control and harass domestic abuse victims has been published online. Experts explain everything you need to know. 

If your door code changed every day without reason and your heating kept randomly switching on, you’d start to think you were losing your mind – wouldn’t you?

Our relationship with technology has always been a cautious one, and now there’s good reason for it as recent reports have shown a rise in abusers using smart home technology as a means to exert power and control in abusive relationships – and it largely affects women.

Which is why researchers from Privacy International and University College London have come together to create a ‘tech abuse’ list to “better inform and guide victims of technology-facilitated abuse as well as those working with them”.

The list, which has been divided into digital security for women and children and how devices are connected and controlled via the internet, aims to better equip women on how to be able to deal with making essential changes to home devices – especially after a relationship has ended.

The abuse isn’t just limited to lights and thermostats, it even extends to bank accounts and mobile phones

In the UK, over two million people experience domestic abuse every year which is why SafeLives – a national domestic abuse charity – has carried out extensive research about the relationship between technology and abuse.

“Our research shows that perpetrators are getting increasingly clever at using technology to inflict abuse, meaning they can intimidate and control their partners or ex-partners even if they are not in the same place,” Suzanne Jacob OBE, chief executive of SafeLives, tells stylist.co.uk.

The abuse isn’t just limited to lights and thermostats, it even extends to bank accounts and mobile phones.

“Half of the women we talked to as part of this research said harassment was facilitated through technology. This included tracking bank accounts, hacking smart devices in the home, location tracking on mobile phones, or using social media to intimidate and blackmail partners or ex-partners,” continues Jacob. “Technology means even if the survivor has moved away and left the relationship, the perpetrator can find ways to continue their control.”

In a recent report about ‘technology-facilitated abuse’, domestic victims, lawyers, shelter workers and emergency responders shared detailed stories with the New York Times about how technology is fast becoming a new tool for abusers. The interviewees (all women) declined to reveal their names due to safety. In one case, a doctor in Silicon Valley said her husband, an engineer, “controls the thermostat. He controls the lights. He controls the music.” She said, “Abusive relationships are about power and control, and he uses technology.”

Unable to use the technology, she’s found herself in a position where she can’t remove her husband from the accounts.

“I have a specific exit plan that I’m in the process of implementing, and one of my fantasies is to be able to say, ‘Okay, Google, play whatever music I want’”, she said. In regard to the smart thermostat, she plans to “pull it out of the wall.”

Professionals dealing with domestic abuse help lines said there had been an increase over the last 12 months from more people calling in about losing control of the Wi-Fi, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras.

“Imagine how you can make someone feel small and stupid because they can’t operate smart gadgets ‘properly’ – and how you can convince the abused person how much they need you because only you can operate it,” cyber-security expert Professor Alan Woodward, from Surrey University, told BBC News.

“What everyone needs to remember is that user-shaming in whatever context shows a failure of the designers, not the users.”

In the UK, a quarter of homes use smart devices on a daily basis. A survey, conducted by technology retailer Maplin last year, found a 135% year-on-year increase in smart home device sales. Not only can these devices be used to enable abuse, but experts are finding that technology-related abuse cases aren’t being treated with the same respect and care as abuse carried out in person.

“From our work we know that this form of abuse is often taken less seriously than abuse perpetrated in person, but it is commonly experienced as part of a wider pattern of domestic abuse and coercive control and must be taken seriously,” Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, tells stylist.co.uk

In the UK, a quarter of homes use smart devices on a daily basis     

Going forward, knowledge and education, like the ‘tech abuse’ list, will prove invaluable in dealing with domestic abuse cases involving technology.

“We have to get better at responding to this,” says Jacob. “We need to raise awareness of how these devices can be misused (amongst professionals such as the police or domestic abuse services) so that they can empower survivors to be safe.”

She continued: “It is not as simple as asking survivors to stop using these devices. Our off and online lives are interchangeable, and why should victims of domestic abuse further isolate themselves by disengaging with their online life? We have to get one step ahead.”

For more information on how to deal with cyber security, privacy issues and a guide on how to use common smart home devices click here

If you are worried about your relationship or that of a friend or family member, you can contact the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.womensaid.org.uk.

Images: Unsplash 

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Susan Devaney

Susan Devaney is a digital journalist for Stylist.co.uk, writing about fashion, beauty, travel, feminism, and everything else in-between.

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