MPs warn over tech-enabled domestic abuse
August 7, 2023
By Colin Mann
The Government must make tackling ‘tech abuse’ a priority, according to the UK House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, amid a warning that the use of smart technology and connected devices in facilitating domestic abuse is becoming a growing problem.
The Committee’s report, Connect tech: smart or sinister?, also calls for more to be done to protect the privacy and rights of children, with young people increasingly likely to interact with connected technology at home and in schools.
The Committee launched its inquiry in May 2022 to consider both the potential benefit and harms of connected technology, such as smart speakers, virtual assistants and wearable fitness trackers. Government figures state that there are on average nine connected devices in every household in the UK, while by 2050 there will be 24 billion interconnected devices worldwide.
On tech abuse, the Committee heard evidence that the vast majority of domestic abuse cases now feature some sort of cyber element, including the use of spyware, and perpetrators monitoring movements and collecting recordings and images of victims and survivors.
The report calls on the Government to improve the skills of law enforcement and the response of the criminal justice system, while boosting awareness of specialist services tackling violence against women and girls. Manufacturers and distributors also need to be brought together to mitigate risks through product design.
In response to privacy concerns raised by the use of connected tech, the Committee recommends that the Government empowers users, and in particular children, to exercise their rights over their personal data through intuitive product design, clear terms and conditions and digital literacy schemes.
“While the rising popularity of connected technology has brought undoubted benefits to everyday life, the flip side is the real risk some of these gadgets pose to privacy and personal safety online,” commented Dame Caroline Dinenage MP, Chair of the CMS Committee. “In particular, the surge in use of devices such as smart home security systems, baby monitors, cameras and smart speakers to monitor, harass, coerce and control victims of domestic abuse is truly chilling.”
“The Government must make it a priority to work with manufacturers to tackle this technology-facilitated abuse, which is only going to get worse in the future. The police and criminal justice system must be better equipped to deal with it, while victims should be properly supported.”
Connected devices also harvest a large amount of personal data and there are particular concerns where children are involved. The Government and Information Commissioner’s Office should make sure products used in schools and by young people at home have privacy settings that are intuitive for children and age-appropriate terms and conditions,” she concluded.
Main conclusions and recommendations
Data and privacy
- Users must be given clear information about, and a fair chance to understand, the basis on which their data is used and how to exercise their rights. The Government should introduce measures to standardise privacy interfaces for connected devices. Privacy interfaces should be appropriately accessible, intuitive and flexible enough so users of a reasonable level of digital literacy and privacy expectations can use them, without requiring them to go through complex dashboards with long lists of terms and conditions and settings.
- The use of connected tech in schools and by children in homes raises concerns, including the harvesting and third-party use of children’s data and their lack of control over what technology is used and when. The Information Commissioner’s Office needs to be more proactive and ensure that all products include age-appropriate terms and conditions.
- The monitoring of employees in smart workplaces should be done only with the consent of those being monitored. The Information Commissioner’s Office should develop its existing draft guidance on ‘Employment practices: monitoring at work’ into a principles-based code for designers and operators of workplace connected tech.
- The Committee supports calls from industry for the Government to do more to address the ongoing skills shortage in the cybersecurity sector. The Government should take steps to support the availability of free courses, encourage more professionals to become cybersecurity educators, improve the provision of core professional skills among the workforce and incentivise industry to improve hiring practices and retention rates.
- The Government must make tackling technology-facilitated abuse, or ‘tech abuse’, a priority. 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 Office for Product Safety and Standards should convene a ‘tech abuse working group’ to bring the industry together to tackle tech abuse.
The Committee will publish a second report later in the summer of 2023, focusing on the impact of connected tech and AI on the creative industries.