Buyer Beware – Black Friday and “Smart Abuse”

Our team: Teresa Cullen, Ronnie Mortimer, Fatima Khan

The biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, is fast approaching, but before you splurge on buying the latest home gadgets and Smart devices, it is worth thinking about whether those devices could be used against you as a means of control or harassment during your relationship and/or when the relationship breaks down.

Smart-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology”, otherwise known as Smart devices, come in all manner of innocuous internet connected devices, including mobile phones, tablets, televisions, and even the lovely Alexa. Smart Abuse essentially refers to technology-facilitated harassment.

Gone are the days when your partner or ex-partner would have had to physically wait outside your work or home, if they wanted to stalk you. Instead, imagine the situation where you are curled up on your sofa late at night and your ex-partner is miles away in their new home. With the flick of a switch on their mobile, and without your knowledge, your ex-partner could be watching your every move through the webcams found in your own home.

New and more inventive ways of abusing a partner or ex-partner are happening every day and that is where Smart Abuse comes into play. It is not uncommon for just one person in a relationship to be in control of the home technology, i.e. setting up the WiFi, setting general passwords, installing speakers and televisions, but that same individual could use Smart technology for more sinister uses, for example:

  1. Spyware can be installed on mobile phones to track and monitor the movements of partners and ex-partners.
  2. Find My Phone can track your location in real time.
  3. Internet connected video doorbells and device cameras can be accessed remotely to watch anyone entering or leaving your home.
  4. Voice recordings and records of internet searches can be downloaded remotely from virtual assistance technology, such as Alexa.
  5. Family photo sharing can reveal more than you intend.
  6. Alexa and other Smart devices can be interrogated by your partner or ex-partner to reveal conversations, requests for music, and TV choices (including dates, times and even recordings of the actual requests).

In 2018, Ross Cairns, an electronics expert, was convicted for eavesdropping on his ex-wife. It was discovered that he had been logging in to an iPad mounted on the kitchen wall using an App on his iPhone. The couple, when they were together, had an iPad installed as a means of controlling the lighting, central heating and alarm system remotely.

It is not only the undercover surveillance that is deeply worrying, but what a partner or ex-partner may do to intimidate you via Smart technology. This could be as simple as adjusting the thermostat remotely or closing the window blinds whilst you are about to go to bed. Such intrusion inevitably leads to a victim feeling like a prisoner in their own home and causing them significant psychological abuse and distress.

Indeed, it was reported in the press only last week that Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard allegations of a “female management consultant ‘hacking into’ her ex-boyfriend’s Amazon smart speaker from 130 miles away in an attempt to force his new partner to leave”. Apparently, the new girlfriend was told by the management consultant to “leave” by speaking through the Amazon Smart device.

The latest version of ‘Family Court Statistics Quarterly’ reported that the number of Applications to the Court in connection with Domestic Abuse increased by 24% compared to the same quarter in 2019. Whilst these figures do not just relate to Smart Abuse, it is surely an indicator that all forms of Domestic Abuse are on the rise. Smart Abuse is likely to feature significantly in the next coming years, with it being reported by Dr. Leonie Tanczer of University College London that, “some 25 billion devices will be connected to the internet [by this year] with studies estimating that this number will rise to 125 billion in 2030”. The increase in the use of smart devices is likely to result in Smart Abuse being commonplace by 2030.

There are various laws in place to help protect victims from Smart Abuse, but they are often a piecemeal remedy. A perpetrator could be found guilty of an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990, “if he causes a computer to perform any function with intent to secure access to any program or data held in any computer…and the access is unauthorised”. It may even be necessary to apply to the Court for a Non-Molestation Order or injunction to prevent the perpetrator from carrying on their abusive behaviour.

So when Black Friday comes ringing at your internet-connected video-enabled doorbell this week, perhaps think about avoiding the urge to trawl through the hundreds of internet pages for Smart device bargains or, if you are tempted, then take sensible steps to protect yourself.

How to minimise the chances of being the victim of Smart Abuse?

Click here for our guidance on how to protect yourself from Smart Abuse.

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