Connected home devices: The new digital tools of domestic abuse

Cohabitation|Family Law|Relationships | 26 Jun 2018 5

I’ve often commented here that family law has to adapt and change with the times. That obvious thought has always been with reference primarily to changes in society: changes to how people arrange their lives, and changes to how certain things are viewed by society. I don’t recall when I have made such comments having in mind changes in technology.

But an article I have read in The New York Times (with thanks to @OnlyDads for mentioning it in my Twitter timeline) has changed all that, bringing to light something that had never occurred to me previously (and, I’m sure, to most people), but that when you hear about it is blindingly obvious: the use of smart home devices as tools of domestic abuse.

Now, I like to think of myself as reasonably technically savvy. I certainly have an interest in tech, something that, as we shall see, many people don’t have. However, I do not possess any ‘smart’ devices in my home. I am therefore no sort of expert on the subject, so please bear that in mind with what follows – if my explanation or understanding of the tech involved with smart home devices is defective, I apologise. With that said, I will try to explain exactly what smart home devices are, for the benefit of the uninitiated.

Smart home devices are devices that can be remotely controlled from outside the home, usually from a smartphone. The devices themselves are mostly the sort of things we all have in our homes, and that we may not consider being ‘devices’ at all: such things as doorbells, door locks, thermostats, smoke detectors, light switches, and even light bulbs. They can also include devices that are specifically installed to be ‘smart’, such as security cameras and smart speakers like the Amazon Echo (which also, of course, has a microphone, for you to talk to it), and even the home hub you use for your home Wi-Fi, to which all smart devices are connected.

So with these devices, you can control and monitor things in your home, even when you are not there. You can, for example, switch on the heating so that the house is warm when you get home, switch on lights, or monitor the house remotely via security cameras. All wonderfully useful stuff. Well, yes, but also a disturbing new tool for domestic abusers.

Remember the modern definition of domestic abuse includes controlling behaviour, defined as follows:

“Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.”

Now think what the possibilities may be for a domestic abuser armed with an array of smart home devices. They can use cameras and microphones to monitor their victims. They can use smart locks to control where they go in the home. They can control them by adjusting heating/air conditioning systems. They can intimidate them by switching lights on and off, or by playing loud music through the speakers. The list is almost endless.

And many of the victims may have no idea what is going on. They may not even be aware of the existence of such smart devices. And they may even continue to be unwitting victims after their abuser has moved out.
But even if they do realise what is happening, that is not the end of the problem, as the article in The New York Times points out.

They may take steps to disable the devices, or at least the perpetrator’s remote access to them, for example by changing the home Wi-Fi password. But the perpetrator will obviously know this has happened, and they may react by using a more direct form of abuse, such as physical violence.
And proving this kind of abuse may be problematic, particularly if the abuser is subtle in how they go about their abuse. How do you prove that they have been using a security camera to monitor your movements, or that that door didn’t just lock due to a glitch in the system?

The victim could, of course, seek a non-molestation order but, as the article mentions, wording an order to cover all possibilities of abuse using smart devices may also be problematic.

Clearly, this is an area that family lawyers and judges are going to have to get to grips with.

You can read the full article here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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    1. Stitchedup says:

      It’s a case of prioritising John, so judges should start with the most commonly used tool of abuse I.e. Parental alienation.

    2. Andrew says:

      I hope nobody comes up with a “solution” which involves banning anyone from owning these useful devices. But I remember the early days of the SOPO when enthusiastic judges made orders forbidding defendants from owning cameras, phones, computers, Internet connections, and in one case a car!

      The world is going to have to get used to these things. Just as it got used to film cameras, trains, and the printing press, all of which can be used for nefarious as well as good purposes.

    3. Jo Archer says:

      And it just so happens that the government is in the middle of a public consulation on the role of the Cenre for Data Ethics and Innovation…..please make your submissions.

    4. Julian says:

      “Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.”

      Sounds akin to the behaviours the British Family Law system promotes; in enabling the RP to engage in exactly this against the NRP. Ending in the abuse of children that is Parental Alienation. To which the Courts and ‘professionals’ (I use that term uncomfortably, based on what I have seen of their conduct), are hopelessly useless in their strategies. One gets the impression that the Family Law business is built upon a thoroughly invalid body of ‘knowledge’ that is ruining lives.

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