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MPs warn about growing prevalence of tech-enabled domestic abuse

The UK government must take action to prevent perpetrators from being able to use connected or smart technologies to conduct their domestic abuse, a select committee has warned

MPs are calling on the UK government to tackle technology-facilitated domestic abuse as a priority, after inquiry finds perpetrators are increasingly using smart devices to establish coercion and control over survivors.

In May 2022 the Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee launched an inquiry into the potential benefits and harms of connected technologies, which it defines as any physical object connected to the internet or other digital networks.

It noted that, according to domestic violence charity Refuge, more than a quarter of women in England and Wales experience abuse at some point in their life; and of the women and children it supported through 2020 and 2021, 59% said technology played a role in their abuse.

Committee chair Caroline Dinenage said the scale of tech-enabled domestic abuse is “truly chilling”, and that it will only get worse in the future if no action is taken.

“The government must make it a priority to work with manufacturers to tackle this technology-facilitated abuse,” she said. “The police and criminal justice system must be better equipped to deal with it, while victims should be properly supported.”

In a report on its findings published 7 August 2023, the committee details how various connected technologies – from smart home security systems and apps to smartphones, speakers and baby monitors – can broaden and exacerbate patterns of abuse, as well as the reach of perpetrators.

This includes perpetrators installing software, otherwise known as spyware or stalkerware, on the various devices used by  survivors; using connected devices to monitor their locations and social interactions, even after survivors have fled; and using the remote or automated functionalities of different technologies to manipulate both survivors’ devices and environments.

“Tech abuse may also have indirect implications caused by the data collected by connected devices while a victim/survivor is being coerced or controlled by a perpetrator,” it said. “The data collected by connected devices, and the data records and profiles that are subsequently created, may therefore present an inaccurate representation of the victim/survivor.

“This may then have implications for accessing services like banking and insurance as risk patterns and behaviours, financial credit ratings and health profiles may reflect these inaccurate representations.”

It further noted that, even after separation, perpetrators are still able to exert coercion and control through, for example, devices gifted to children that enable their continued access to audio-visual information and other data that allows them to track survivor’s locations.

The committee added all these issues are compounded by a “lacking” response from police, which multiple witnesses to its inquiry said “frequently lack an understanding of the nature and dynamics of domestic abuse, and the dangers and multiple forms of tech abuse”, and too often expect survivors to change their own behaviours and “go offline”.

“There is little evidence to suggest that our law enforcement and criminal justice system has been equipped to deal with the problems caused by tech abuse now, let alone as connected devices become even more prevalent in future. While there is no “silver bullet” for dealing with tech abuse, the government can do more to tackle it,” said the report in its recommendations.

“The government’s response to tech abuse should involve upskilling law enforcement to improve the criminal justice response and increasing law enforcement’s and victims’ and survivors’ awareness of specialist services tackling violence against women and girls. The government should also reflect on how official crime data on tech abuse can be improved to expand the evidence base for specialists, academics and policymakers in order to develop a more comprehensive, co-ordinated response.”

Given digital literacy issues in the UK, including among domestic abuse survivors, it further suggested that the government make efforts to improve digital literacy so that users can understand how the connected technologies around them can be manipulated for the purposes of carrying out abuse.

“Many contributors asserted that industry had a role to play in making devices safe and secure for all people. Google and Amazon, for their part, acknowledged that devices could be misused or abused and affirmed that tackling this had been a priority,” it said.

“Despite this, Refuge emphasised that, ‘The response from technology companies to survivors of tech abuse can often be poor’, both for individuals – noting that requests to help victims and survivors make changes to security settings or regain admin control of devices were often slow to process or refused outright – and at a systemic/design level.”

To alleviate such issues, the committee has therefore recommended that the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) convenes a “tech abuse working group” to bring the industry together with researchers, specialist support services and public services.

“This group should be more than just a talking shop, and draw on research to produce guidance and a code of practice that establishes best practice for manufacturers, vendors and law enforcement,” it said. “The working group should report publicly through the OPSS on its progress at regular intervals.”

Emma Pickering, senior operations tech abuse manager at Refuge, said that the charity is the only frontline service in the UK with a specialist team to support women facing the “insidious and complex” nature of tech-enabled abuse.

“We are concerned about the increasingly intricate ways that technology is being used to cause harm. Demand for our specialist tech-facilitated abuse team has risen exponentially since it was formed in 2017 and yet so many remain unaware about what tech-facilitated abuse is,” she said.

“We are pleased to see the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report calling for the government to tackle this issue and hope the government will follow the recommendations to make this a priority and work with Refuge and other specialists in the sector to ensure better outcomes for survivors of this crime.

“Time and time again, survivors tell us there is a lack of understanding as to how technology is weaponised against them by their perpetrators when they report to the police. We need to see better training for law enforcement to understand this issue and more pressure put on tech companies to think about ensuring safety is incorporated into the design of these products which have become daily household items.” 

The CMS committee’s inquiry also looked at a wide array of other connected technologies and deployment scenarios – including in homes, schools and smart cities – and specifically investigated the proliferation of “smart workplaces”, noting that a wide range of enterprises from all different sectors have been increasingly deploying such technology to monitor their employees in recent years.

It said the monitoring of employees via connected technologies “should only be done in consultation with, and with the consent of, those being monitored”, adding that the UK government should commission research to improve the evidence base around the deployment of automated data collection systems at work.

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