The issue of security remains both a concern and a selling point for smart home technology.
As domestic appliances become more connected to the internet, the risk of data leaks and cybercrime seeps into the household. Tech companies must act to safeguard their smart home products against misuse in domestic abuse situations. GlobalData forecasts that by 2025 over $75bn will be spent in the global smart home industry.
However, cyber attacks and data crime have plagued the maturing automated home industry from its inception, as early as the 2016 distributed denial of service attack on the heating system of Finnish apartment blocks. Residents were left in the cold from this attack, but the bad actors wishing to use automated home tech to facilitate their crime may not always come from outside the household.
In the US – identified by GlobalData as the leading market for this technology – more than 10 million people experience intimate partner violence per year.
Domestic abuse victims already face a complicated escape from their perpetrators, oftentimes leaving a home they financially have stakes in, as well as disappearing from social media. The introduction of smart home technology that uses cameras or microphones, such as smart doorbells or speakers, further enmeshes victims in an abuse dynamic.
Technology companies cannot presume that the homes where their technology is being installed are safe, and at a time when consumer confidence in ESG policies has never been lower, a commitment to privacy and safeguarding are of utmost importance.
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Privacy for domestic abuse victims goes beyond a customary need for data protection. Abusive relationships are, by nature, an exploitation of privacy. As ambient computing spreads throughout the home, abusers are given more opportunity to monitor and control their victims remotely.
Smart home technology hopes to make our chores easier and our homes more secure, but the environment in which it is being introduced is not always equal. A Refuge report found that 18% of women interviewed did not know the password to their home’s WiFi, and a further 41% stated that a password to one or more of their devices and online accounts was known to their partner.
Prior to the recent emergency-alert test this April in the UK, social media infographics circulated instructing abuse victims on how to disable these alerts to not give away any secret devices they may have. For people living in domestic abuse, privacy is a need for physical safety.
Modern IoT devices can be used to listen in on victims or even control the environment they are in, and often these victims are not as digitally aware of how these devices can be misused.
Emma Pickering, senior operations technology-facilitated abuse manager at Refuge stated that her team is seeing an increase in reports of perpetrators using smart home technology to “monitor, harass and inflict harm” on their victims.
Expanding on this she said that the nature of smart home technology means “the perpetrator does not need to be in, or even near, the house to abuse, meaning that even after women have fled abusive partners, perpetrators continue to use these devices to inflict abuse.”
Are tech companies doing enough?
When used correctly smart home technology can provide victims who have fled abuse much-needed security. In 2022, Ring announced a donation of 10,000 devices to US non-profit, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, to allow survivors in the US a feeling of safety when starting their life away from violence.
In response to stalking concerns raised by posters online and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, Apple has released a new iOS update named ‘Safety Check’ which immediately stops sharing data from the user’s iPhone to connected apps and devices. A statement from Apple announced that it updated its alerts system to let both Apple and Android users know when they are being tracked by an unknown AirTag.
Legislation on inter-connected devices is still sparse in many countries, however the UK announced a new Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act (PSTI Act). The Act, which will be enacted by April 2024, proposes a ban on default passwords and a requirement for companies to publish their maintenance periods for connected devices.
The PSTI Act will allow customers to choose their devices based on how frequently they will have software updates, which will protect devices from being hacked.
But according to Pickering at Refuge, “many technology companies are failing to put effective safeguarding measures in place.” In a time-sensitive situation where a victim is being tracked or listened-in on, safeguarding issues should be considered during the design of smart home technology, not treated as a problem to fix after release. Especially after so many women feel that their stalking concerns go ignored by authorities and tech companies remain hard to contact in a timely manner.
Tech companies must see it as their duty to develop safeguarding features to mitigate abusers’ ability to control their victims via their products.