Connected devices such as baby monitors and smart speakers are increasingly being used to survey, harass and control domestic abuse victims, MPs have warned.
The government has been urged to do more to tackle the rise in so-called “tech abuse” – whereby smart technology and connected devices are used to broaden and facilitate patterns of abuse.
According to official figures, there are on average nine connected devices in every household in the UK. By 2050, there will be 24 billion interconnected devices worldwide.
The report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee found the vast majority of domestic abuse cases now feature “some sort of cyber element” – including the use of spyware, with perpetrators able to monitor movements and collect recordings and images of victims and survivors.
Statistics from Refuge, the largest specialist provider of gender-based violence services in the UK, found that of the women and children it supported in 2020, 59% experienced abuse involving technology.
Dr Leonie Tanczer, lecturer in international security and emerging technologies at University College London, told the committee some organisations cite figures between 75% and 100%.
She warned that some women were now being detected at domestic violence refuges and shelters through remaining logged into their Netflix account.
“People now need to think, ‘If I go into a refuge, is my smartwatch still connected with my device?’
“Interestingly, people have found that women are often detected in the refuge through their Netflix account because they forget that they are still connected when they log in at the refuge. It is these things that women are not thinking of, and of course they aren’t,” she said.
While the MPs said there was no “silver bullet” for dealing with tech abuse, it urged the government to do more to tackle it by improving the criminal justice response, raising public awareness and bringing together industry representatives to ensure they are mitigating risks through product design.
The committee criticised the current criminal justice response to tech abuse as “lacking” and said more action needed to be taken to help survivors, including, for example, providing specialist services for those who have experienced tech abuse and rolling out training to police forces.
In evidence given to the committee in June last year, Refuge said: “Too often, the onus is placed on survivors to change their behaviour, with police officers recommending survivors come offline, rather than focusing on pursuing perpetrators.
“Officers frequently lack an understanding of the nature and dynamics of domestic abuse, and the dangers and multiple forms of tech abuse.”
Dame Caroline Dinenage, chair of the CMS Committee, said the surge in the use of devices in domestic abuse was “truly chilling”.
“The government must make it a priority to work with manufacturers to tackle this technology-facilitated abuse, which is only going to get worse in the future.”
Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, said: “Too often, victims and survivors are expected to keep themselves safe from tech abuse, rather than tech companies taking steps to prevent harm.
“While the government has made good progress on some forms of tech abuse through the Online Safety Bill, they must ensure tech companies address all the tools that perpetrators use, including smart home devices.
“I also want to see more police training on how perpetrators use these new forms of technology, and investment in specialist domestic abuse services that are focussed on supporting victims of tech abuse.”
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A government spokesperson said: “Domestic abuse is a despicable crime and one which this government is determined to tackle. That is why we published the cross-government tackling domestic abuse plan in March 2022 and are investing over £230m of funding to prevent offending, support victims and pursue perpetrators.
“We will introduce world-leading rules next year to bolster cybersecurity standards across devices, protecting individual privacy and security, and our Online Safety Bill will become law in a matter of months – making the UK the safest place in the world to be online.”