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Domestic abusers using tech to spy on and control partners, charity reveals

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Domestic abusers are using technology to spy on their partners and control them, according to charities.

Victim support charity Refuge said it had seen nearly 1,000 cases of abuse in Britain this year involving devices such as home hubs, smart TVs and fitness trackers.

In addition to using computers and mobile phones, other technology being used against victims includes voice-activated home assistants, webcams and thermostats.

Refuge said it has trained 347 staff to keep on top of new tech and understand how it can be used in an abusive scenario.

“Over recent years, frontline staff at Refuge have recorded an alarming trend in the misuse of everyday technology by current or former partners to control, isolate, humiliate and dominate their victims,” said Refuge chief executive Sandra Horley.

“We have seen technological abuse in cases of domestic violence, stalking, economic abuse, trafficking and modern slavery and rape and sexual assault.

“Since January we have already supported 920 survivors who had suffered some form of technological abuse from online harassment, stolen online identities, hacking, spoofing, revenge pornography, to stalking and surveillance.

“In addition to protecting survivors, our work also focuses on empowering them to use technology safely in the future and avoid further isolation, a frequent consequence of domestic abuse.”

Smart devices are connected to the internet and can usually be operated remotely by the account holder. They range from voice-activated home hubs to connected cars, heating systems, fridges, door locks and CCTV systems.

Campaigners say many of these devices can be used to record and transmit data without the person under surveillance knowing.

There are also concerns that abusers might change home settings such as light levels or door locks to confuse victims.

Britain introduced laws in 2015 making “coercive or controlling behaviour” a domestic violence offence carrying a penalty of up to five years in jail. It was intended to close a loophole in the law that had previously allowed abusive partners to exert control with behaviour that stopped short of violence.

In May 2018, a man was convicted of stalking his estranged wife after using an iPad installed as part of a smart home system to listen to his ex-partner’s conversations, according to a report in The Times newspaper.

YouGov research from earlier this month found that smart home devices have rapidly grown in popularity and that a quarter of Britons now own devices such as those powered by Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. 

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