Over the past six months, technology has had its fair share of bad press. We have had many stories covering social media with fake news, online harassment and users’ tracking, kids and screen addiction, AI stealing our jobs, and robots taking over the world. This past Saturday, however, there was a New York Times’ story about how domestic abusers take advantage of smart home tech that made me think of the challenges that brands, as well as governments, will increasingly face.
You heard me say it before: technology per se is not bad, but humans can certainly use it in ways that can cause harm to themselves or others.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
I have to admit it never occurred to me that smart home technology could be used to inflict more pain on victims of domestic abuse. The Times referred to reports by abuse helplines that saw an increase over the past year of calls about abusers using smart home tech for surveillance and psychological warfare. Victims mentioned thermostats being controlled to make the house too hot or too cold, doorbells ringing when nobody is at the door, door-locks pin codes being changed preventing access to the home.
Maybe because I am “half full kinda person” I always thought about all the advantages smart home tech brings whether helping monitoring elderly parents or assisting people with disabilities be more independent in their home. Of course, abusers are not new to using technology to track their victims, think about GPS for instance or the use of social media. Even then, I always saw the other side of the coin considering how GPS could not just help me find my phone but find my dog or make sure my child was where she said she was.
According to the National Domestic Violence, Hotline 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. One in 6 women (16.2%) and 1 in 19 men (5.2%) in the United States have experienced stalking victimization at some point during their lifetime in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed. What makes smart home tech particularly concerning according to the Times is that these new gadgets like cameras, smart speakers, smart locks seem to be used to abuse women in particular. This is because, by and large, men control technology purchases in the home as well as their set up and any service linked to them.
Educating and Assisting
I find that blaming a male-driven Silicon Valley for designing products that might be used to hurt women to be out of place. It is true that, quite often, tech products are designed by men for men, but this does not mean they are designed with the detriment of women in mind.
That said, I do believe that tech companies have a responsibility to think through how technology is used and they should warn of how it could be misused. Of course, it is not easy to add to your smart doorbell instructions manual: “Warning, an abusive partner could use the camera to monitor every person who gets to your door or every time you leave the house.” Companies could, however, work with support agencies to help them understand how the technology could become a tool for abuse so they could advize vulnerable people and teach about it at prevention workshops as well as be prepared with practical steps to be used for a safety planning.
Staying a Step Ahead
Aside from helping prevention and assisting victims, I feel that there is a significant need from the legal system to stay a step ahead when it comes to technology across the board, and the case of using tech for domestic abuse is no different.
The criminal justice system intervention in domestic abuse took over twenty years to get where we are today. And it is far from being perfect! In the early 1970s, the law required the police to either witness a misdemeanor assault or to obtain a warrant to arrest. Only in the late 1970s warrantless probably cause arrest laws passed. In the late 1980s, after the Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment was published showing that arrest was the most effective way to reduce re-offending many US police departments adopted a mandatory arrest policy for spousal violence cases with probable cause. When it comes to domestic abuse, it seems however that the first judgment call on whether to proceed with an arrest is whether or not there are visible and recent marks of violence.
Psychological abuse is much harder to prove, and the process puts a huge burden on the victim who, in most cases, is reticent to come forward in the first place. This is what is concerning about how tech can play a role in domestic abuse, and gaslighting in particular.
I am no criminal law expert, but it seems to me that the legal system should not only be educated about how technology can be used to victimize but also, and maybe most importantly, how the same technology can provide information to back up the victim’s story.
We always walk a fine line between civil liberties and policing, but recent history has proven that rushed decisions made in response to an incident as rarely the best. Technology is on the path to get more sophisticated and smarter, at times beyond human comprehension, and sadly the world in recent years has shown that there are plenty of people looking to exploit tech for evil purposes. Hoping for the best is no longer an option.