In a respectful and loving relationship these are helpful or fun tools. But in an abusive relationship where a parent or partner is trying to control what you eat, where you go, who you talk to, and how much electricity you’re allowed to use, it is the recipe for a controlling nightmare.
That’s something eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant has been seeing a lot.
“Technology-facilitated abuse has become ubiquitous in cases of domestic and family violence,” she says.
“It ranges from low tech — like abusive text messaging — right through to high tech, where perpetrators install tracking software on their spouse’s car or phone, or use smart home devices like their TV or fridge to exert fear and control. Frankly, nothing surprises us any more in terms of how motivated perpetrators will misuse technology to menace their domestic partners.”
Nicole McMahon, the general manager of 1800RESPECT — a national sexual assault and domestic family violence counselling service — is also seeing a lot of this kind of abuse used alongside traditional, low tech abuse.
“[Our] counsellors often hear from people experiencing technology-facilitated abuse,” McMahon says. “It’s becoming more common as technology develops, but we’re also hearing from more people experiencing this type of abuse because more people understand the issue. Technology-facilitated abuse is almost always experienced alongside other forms of domestic or family violence.”
Part of the problem is that, while a very small portion of these apps and devices are being designed specifically for nefarious purposes, most of the developers of smart home products never consider that they might be misused, and thus don’t factor safety into their designs. But, according to Grant, even if they did consider it, it might not make much difference.
“The reality is, anything connected to the internet — whether it’s our phone (and the apps on it) or even Wi-Fi connected baby monitors — has the potential to be misused or hacked.”
That said, Grant still wants developers and designers to think about potential negative impacts of technologies before they’re released.
“We believe that all technology providers need to consider putting safety by design at the core of any product or service, to engineer out misuse and build in protections before the damage is done.
“The impacts on victims and their children that have lived with domestic and family violence can be devastating. It can affect their physical, mental and financial wellbeing long after they have left an abusive relationship.”
If you or someone you care about is experiencing technology-facilitated abuse, there is help available.
“If technology is being used to abuse or threaten you as part of domestic and family violence, there are some steps to take to keep safe,” Grant says.
“The first step is to understand that technology can serve as either a lifeline or an anchor, so those experiencing domestic violence need to be aware and take steps to mitigate the risks.”
- Change passwords or codes on all accounts and devices, including the Wi-Fi; turn off GPS, location services and Bluetooth unless they are absolutely necessary, and use a safe (“clean”) device and new email address that the abuser cannot access for all eSafety planning.
- On social media, be careful about who you add as a “friend” and the kind of information you are posting.
- Check your children’s accounts and devices for spyware or tracking apps and include your kids in discussions about eSafety planning.
Alice is a freelance journalist, producer and presenter.