When “smart” is not necessarily safe: the rise of connected devices extending domestic violence

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant explores the ways connected devices are being increasingly used to control, stalk and abuse in domestic and family violence and the precautions that can be taken.  

 

From smart TVs, fridges and speakers, to security cameras and air-conditioners, our homes are filled with connected devices, known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Last year the average Australian household had 17.1 connected devices, and nearly 110 million “smart” home products were reportedly shipped worldwide.

These devices are designed to make our lives easier, giving us the ability to monitor and control appliances, whitegoods and even gardening products with the push of a remote button or a voice command. But they are also becoming the new weapons of choice for perpetrators of domestic and family violence, allowing them to further harass, stalk and control women with unprecedented ease.

Using technology to abuse women is not a new phenomenon. In fact, a survey of workers who support women experiencing domestic or family violence revealed that 98% of cases involved some form of online abuse, surveillance or stalking.

The vast majority of this abuse is still relatively “low-tech” – threatening text messages, tracking through GPS or small tracking devices and setting up impostor profiles on social media. But we also know from feedback from the more than 8,000 domestic and family violence workers we’ve reached through our eSafety Women training program that the use of IoT devices to control, stalk and harass is on the rise.

Sadly, one case involved a perpetrator hacking into the computer programming of his ex-partner’s car to limit where she could go. Every time she drove further than a 5 km radius, her car would inexplicably stall. This even perplexed the mechanics who tried to identify and fix the issue.

Another perpetrator changed the family’s smart TV password before leaving the home, creating menacing and abusive messages to his ex-partner and the kids that appeared on screen each time they turned on the TV.

Removing technology from the equation isn’t helpful or even practicable as automation becomes more prevalent. Technology serves as a vital lifeline for women escaping violent situations. It helps them stay connected with family and friends, support services, as well as carry on with their day-to-day lives. Rather than telling women to disconnect, eSafety Women empowers them with strategies to protect themselves so they can go online safely and be aware of any red flags that may indicate they are being surveilled or stalked. 

The technology companies that develop IoT devices also need to better assess risk and take responsibility for how their devices might be misused. Through our Safety by Design initiative we’re encouraging companies to bake in safeguards and protections from the development stage, to prevent their misuse in the first place.

Unfortunately, anything that is connected to the internet has the potential to be misused or hacked. That’s why it’s vital to be aware of the risks and know how to protect yourself.

We advise taking the following precautions if you are at risk of technology-facilitated abuse: 

  • Change passwords/passcodes on all accounts and devices, including the wi-fi.
  • Turn off GPS/location services/Bluetooth unless they’re absolutely necessary.
  • Use a safe (‘clean’) device and a new email address that the abuser cannot access, for all safety planning
  • On social media, be very careful about who you add as a friend, as abusers sometimes use impersonator accounts.
  • Be careful with what you are posting, because it might give away information about your location and activities.
  • Check your children’s accounts and devices and include your kids in discussions about online safety planning.
  • Get support – 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) can help with safety planning; talk to trusted family and friends – it’s important to stay connected online and offline.
  • Call Triple Zero (000) if you feel that you are in immediate danger

Visit eSafety Women for more advice on staying safe online or using digital devices. 

For more about technology-facilitated abuse please read:

 


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