The dark side of smart technology: Enabling domestic abuse


A few years ago, a group of workers at tech giant IBM were joking over lunch about how they could use the smart technology in their homes to play tricks on their families.

“They were openly laughing about how they were remotely controlling the Wifi and heating at home, unbeknownst to their partners who were home at the time,” said Lesley Nuttall, an IBM developer from the UK.

The workers had accidentally stumbled onto something with more sinister possibilities. Following their initial hunch, IBM used its research unit to dig a bit deeper, and spoke to domestic violence support workers and the British equivalent of Women’s Refuge.

Nuttall said the results were alarming. They found that the use of “smart” technology by abusive people to control and coerce their partners was already prevalent in domestic violence cases, and becoming more common. Products which were designed for safety, convenience or financial security were being repurposed for malicious reasons.

Nuttall will speak about this tech-related abuse and how New Zealand tech companies can design their products to combat domestic violence in an online seminar on Friday as part of Techweek 2020.

IBM found that abusive partners took advantage of GPS technology in phones and cars to track a partner, or used motion-activated doorbell cameras to get notifications about when a person was coming and going from a property.

Other technology-related abuse was more subtle and insidious. Abusive partners “gaslit” their spouses by remotely changing the temperature in their homes and denying they had done it.

“If you’re able to remove all the evidence of an action that’s taken place, or if there wasn’t any evidence captured, then that could cause someone to question their memory – especially if your partner is saying ‘You’re going crazy’,” Nuttall said.

In another case, a partner who had a protection order against him and was blocked on all forms of social media discovered where his ostracised family was living by messaging his children through a photography app – which had location settings built into each photo.

Nuttall said tech consumers were usually left to protect themselves. But companies’ typical advice to them could actually worsen an abusive situation. Blocking someone could escalate their abusive behaviour, and removing an app could isolate a person even further.

“We don’t want to throttle innovation,” Nuttall said. “Sometimes it is just being aware that what you create can be manipulated to do something slightly differently.”

IBM developer Lesley Nuttall will speak to New Zealand businesses on Friday about how to design their products in ways which combat domestic violence. Photo / Supplied
IBM developer Lesley Nuttall will speak to New Zealand businesses on Friday about how to design their products in ways which combat domestic violence. Photo / Supplied

IBM has devised five design principles for companies. They include better security and data policies, such as limiting GPS or bank transaction data to individual users if they are sharing a car or a bank account.

Holly Carrington, a policy advisor at domestic violence organisation Shine, said she started noticing the role of new technology in domestic abuse about 10 years ago.

At the time, clients had started complaining about hidden cameras in their homes. Now, the abuse could be more sophisticated, like abusive exes using small bank deposits to send messages to a person who had blocked them on social media.

Frontline domestic violence workers now had to diversify their interviews to ask victims about the social media pages and apps they used, Carrington said.

“A lot of these apps weren’t developed with malicious uses in mind and sometimes they can be used in positive ways,” she said.

“And some of the ways that developers can make their products safer is just by making things more explicit – being very clear that GPS tracking is part of the app.”

Addressing tech-related abuse partly depended on having a responsive regulatory system.

New Zealand updated the legal definition of family violence last year to recognise that controlling behaviour over a period of time could frighten or undermine a victim. That did not go as far as the United Kingdom, where “coercive control” was recognised as a crime in itself.

Carrington said it was more difficult to get a protection order on the grounds of coercion or controlling behaviour without evidence of physical violence.

“We know that where there is a really high degree of monitoring and control, those can be really high-risk situations even if there hasn’t previously been any physical abuse,” she said.

“It might be in our law, but that doesn’t mean that key decision-makers like judges and lawyers have a very good understanding of it and the impact, and how it really constrains victims’ choices. And technology can play a big role in that system of entrapment.”

TECH MANIPULATION

• Smart doorbell apps which allow people to remotely see who is at the door were designed with safety in mind. But the motion capture feature can be used to trap victims, by sending notifications whenever someone comes or goes.

• Credit card apps can provide instant purchase notifications, and were created to help combat fraud. However, they can also give enhanced control over victims with details of their spending being instantly monitored.

• Smart technology within homes, such as remotely controlled heating or lighting, has been manipulated by abusive partners who use it to “gas-light” their spouses.

Source: Coercive Control Resistant Design, 2019

*Techweek TV: Empower through design: how technology and design can combat domestic violence. Friday 31 July, 9am-9.30am (livestream).

If you’re in danger now:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people.
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you.
• Don’t stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it’s not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 refuge or 0800 733 843 www.womensrefuge.org.nz
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day – 0508 744 633 www.2shine.org.nz
• It’s Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and middle eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence
• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men’s violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent. www.whiteribbon.org.nz

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