Jul 12, 2018

How 'Internet of Things' Devices Can Help Victims of Domestic Abuse

Jennifer Huddleston Former Research Fellow , Anne Hobson Visiting Dissertation Fellow

Can a smart thermostat be a tool for abuse? The New York Times recently published an article noting the rise in domestic abuse cases involving internet-connected home devices. The ways that domestic abuse can involve new technology—whether it be remote harassment, monitoring, or domineering behavior—are deeply troubling. Still, we should be careful to separate what a technology does from the misdeeds of bad actors using a technology. What’s more, we need to take care that our proposed solutions don’t prevent the development of better, more creative remedies.

Domestic abuse is a sadly common problem. Nearly one in three women and one in four men will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in their life. Like their analog counterparts, Internet of Things (IoT) devices can facilitate abusers in causing psychological harm. The New York Times piece highlights stories of individuals whose partners hijack remote access to IoT devices such as thermostats or lights to harass them by adjusting lighting and temperature even after the abuser had been removed from the home. The article suggests that these incidents are part of a larger trend, and implies that such actions would not have occurred absent these technologies.

While it shined a spotlight on some unintended uses of IoT devices, the article missed an opportunity to discuss how those same technologies can actually ameliorate domestic violence.

For example, video doorbells like Ring make it possible to see if an abuser is at the door without the victim having to go to answer it. Many smart speakers have relatively unobtrusive recording features that could empower a victim to provide evidence of abuse. App-based panic buttons or bluetooth trackers linked with mobile phones can allow victims to silently message, call for help, or record potentially dangerous situations with the tap of a finger.

Roughly half of all men and women in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. However, women are more likely to experience domestic violence—four out of five victims of intimate partner violence are female. The New York Times article points out that men are more likely to install IoT devices and retain control of the passwords settings of things like routers, internet-connected cameras and thermostats. This suggests that connected devices are disproportionately being used by male abusers to target women. Designing IoT devices with the needs and wants of victims in mind can shatter that dynamic.

Almost any technology can be misappropriated by bad actors. Unfortunately, domestic abusers are likely to take advantage of their victims’ perceived weaknesses, including their digital insecurity.

Local and national domestic violence organizations could play an important role in counteracting abuse by reminding victims to change device passwords or permissions and suggest resources that check for spyware. Advocacy groups can work with manufacturers to help them design access controls and permissions with the potential for domestic abuse in mind. Companies can also help by making the information on how to change passwords or reset devices easily accessible and actionable. Flexibility and optionality in terms of access and permissions can shift the nexus of control to the victim. 

Domestic abuse is horrible. Abusers will use any tools within their power to victimize their targets. Increasing awareness of device security and permissions and designing devices with victims in mind can ensure that IoT devices become tools of empowerment rather than abuse.  

Photo credit: Eric Kayne/AP/Shutterstock

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