The Nest Hello doorbell can stream HD video of whatever or whoever is on your doorstep, 24 hours a day, and lets you check a three-hour recording to see anything thatâs passed by. The Nest thermostat will let you twiddle your temperature from afar, so if you forget to turn your heating off when you go on holiday, you can do it via an app.
The companies behind this web of networked devices want to make our lives easier, but for some it could have the opposite effect. Research from University College London (UCL) highlights how internet of things (IoT) devices could be weaponised against victims of domestic abuse.
The research, led by Leonie Tanczer, a postdoctoral researcher at UCL, builds a picture of how smart devices may make life worse for people facing intimate harassment, surveillance and abuse.
Starting in January, researchers spent six months collecting testimony from those affected by domestic violence to weigh up the risks emerging from the IoT. Working with those in the voluntary and statutory sectors, including the police, Tanczer and colleagues Trupti Patel, Simon Parkin and George Danezis, from UCLâs IoT research hub, collaborated with Privacy International and a consortium of 29 organisations that work to combat violence against women and girls to understand the impacts of IoT-related abuse on female-identifying people.
IoT devices, Tanczer explains, can intensify coercion and control within abusive relationships by helping perpetrators monitor their partner and use this against them for psychological abuse. Your smart doorbell might, for example, allow someone to track your movements in and out of the house. Or your thermostat could be tampered with from afar, making you question your memory, causing confusion and psychological distress and leading to a sense of imprisonment within your own home. These potential abuses are particularly important to investigate because they âlimit peopleâs ability to move, to extract themselves from their situation,â Tanczer says.
The vast majority of tech-related domestic surveillance currently happens through more common devices like smartphones, laptops and tablets. Perpetrators install spyware to monitor their partner, and cyberstalking of social media accounts is also a common issue. In 2016, research from Comic Relief showed that four in five women who experienced domestic abuse had had their activity monitored by their partner.
But researchers say it is only a matter of time before abusers find ways to use IoT devices too. âWhat weâve seen time and time again is that perpetrators tend to be one step ahead in leveraging technology to use it as a tool for abuse: theyâve done it with smartphones and location tracking, the internet and social media, so thereâs no reason not to expect that smart homes and the IoT will be the next big thing,â says Roxanne LeitĂŁo, a PhD candidate at Central Saint Martins who is working on the topic of IoT abuse.
There has so far been one recorded case of a conviction for smart-device-related abuse: in May, The Times reported that 35 year-old electronics expert Ross Cairns had been convicted of stalking after using an iPad that controlled a web of devices including lighting, central heating, a TV and an alarm system, and which was mounted to a wall in his estranged wifeâs home, to spy on her.
Those involved in creating the UCL report say that these technologies enhance abusersâ existing ability to carry out intimate partner surveillance. âWhatâs underlying this all the time is power structures, and a desire on the part of the perpetrator to control, so there is a continuity there,â says Shani Lee, coordinator of the London Violence Against Women and Girls Consortium, one of three stakeholders in the research. âHowever, of course there are new risks emerging where that kind of control can be exerted.â
Given that just 21 per cent of domestic violence cases are reported to the police, according to the Office of National Statistics, and 29 per cent of these result in no action by police, it is clear that getting away from abusers is already fraught with hurdles.
Invisible abuse is harder to detect than abuse which leaves a trace. A black eye, Tanczer says, is far easier to spot than a hacked smartphone, and police wonât touch the phone unless they have a strong enough reason to do so. âIf thereâs no physical impact, often itâs not considered really an abuse,â she adds.
One of the women LeitĂŁo interviewed believed her Apple HomePod was recording her conversations. âShe was convinced that this device was listening in on her when she was at home,â LeitĂŁo explains. âThe perpetrator seemed to know everything about her life, without her necessarily telling him a lot of that stuffâ. But the woman found it difficult to share her concerns. âWhen she tells people she sounds kind of crazy,â LeitĂŁo says. âIf you tell someone, âMy smart thermostat is behaving oddly, it keeps changing without me doing anythingâ, or âThe lights in my home keep switching on and off without me doing anythingâ â it sounds like youâre a bit unstable to the people around you.â This process of systematic gaslighting â a form of psychological abuse designed to make someone doubt their version of reality â erodes a personâs self-esteem and can increase their dependency on their abuser.
Another woman LeitĂŁo spoke to repeatedly took her smartphone to the police to scan it for spyware. âThey kept coming back with âThereâs nothing on it, thereâs nothing on it,ââ she says. âYet when she took it to the IT department at her office, they in fact did find spyware on the device.â Across her research, LeitĂŁo says, people often faced increased surveillance at especially difficult moments, such as family court proceedings over child custody. âItâs a process of wearing the victim down,â she says.
Local authorities across England have had their funding for domestic violence refuges cut by 24 per cent since 2010, according to research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, amid wider local council funding cuts set to amount to 77 per cent by 2020.
The government, meanwhile, claims to have made dealing with domestic abuse an absolute priority, and, in the recently-launched consultation into the first draft of the coming Domestic Abuse Bill, appears to be focusing on law and order by cracking down on perpetrators.
The UCL team submitted their findings to the consultation in the hope of ensuring adequate awareness of and provision for tech-related abuse and particularly abuse via the internet of things. The main outcome of the research so far has been practical: theyâve created a guide to help frontline workers be aware of the potential areas of abuse, such as wearable, location-tracking tech, video and audio recording devices, and networked devices which share data.
Advocates like LeitĂŁo also suggest that companies should be building devices which implement privacy by design, supporting multi-user accounts, ensuring that default, out-of-the-box settings canât be manipulated so as to be harmful to different members of the household, and that data is not shared between different users. âGender is not something thatâs taken into consideration when IoT objects are being engineered,â says Eva Blum-Dumontet at Privacy International.