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UCL researchers launch guide for frontline workers on how the Internet of Things (IoT) can affect victims of gender-based domestic and sexual violence and abuse

5 July 2018

Internet of Things

UCL researchers, Dr Leonie Tanczer, Dr Simon Parkin, Dr Trupti Patel and Professor George Danezis, today launched a guide and a resource list for frontline workers and support services working with victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. The guide aims to help support services talk about abuse carried out using ‘smart’, internet-connected devices (also known as the Internet of Things, or IoT). It also explains common ways in which IoT devices work, in case abuse of this kind is suspected.

The research team developed the material following interviews and focus group discussions with both voluntary and statutory support services. Their analysis revealed how support organisations were to this point unaware of IoT as a new form of technology-facilitated abuse. This is evidenced by:

  • Tech abuse frequently not being a factor in the risk and safety assessments of victims;
  • The absent focus on emerging technologies such as IoT and Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine learning when it comes to the support of victims;
  • The lack of concrete guidance and expertise surrounding these issues in the statutory and voluntary sector.

Principal Investigator, Dr Leonie Tanczer said: “We are delighted to see the guide and resource list published. With the launch of these materials we hope to raise awareness and bring attention to an evolving risk vector that is only going to expand in relevance, highlighted by the first recorded IoT-facilitated abuse case in a UK court.”

The research, on which this guide is based, is part of an interdisciplinary project exploring the implications of IoT on gender-based domestic violence and abuse, funded by a Social Science Plus+ award from UCL's Collaborative Social Science Domain.

The project was developed with support from three stakeholders: The London VAWG Consortium, made up of 29 organisations working in partnership to deliver comprehensive, high-quality services to communities delivering a range of support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence across London. All of these 29 organisations have real-world, practical insights into technological abuse and coercive control; Privacy International, a charity committed to the right to privacy and a visible public voice on the issue of data exploitation; and The PETRAS IoT Hub, a consortium of nine leading UK universities which work together to explore critical issues in privacy, ethics, trust, reliability, acceptability, and security. 

Shani Lee, Co-ordinator of the London VAWG Consortium, said: “The partnership with UCL has enabled frontline organisations to contribute to future thinking about preventing and addressing sexual and domestic violence and abuse risks emerging through the use of smart devices. This is especially significant in London, given the huge ethnic and cultural diversity and where women and girls may have multiple and complex needs."

Commenting on the the project, Dr Trupti Patel, said: “We were always striving for our study to expand the focus on tech abuse to emerging technologies such as smart locks, speakers and other Internet-connected systems within support organisations. Our research unravelled how shared accounts across users, remote control and functionalities such as video or audio recordings can exacerbate the risk trajectories for victims.”

Eva Blum-Dumontet, a researcher on the topic of gender and privacy at Privacy International, added: “I have found the Gender and Internet of Things project to be invaluable in helping us foresee what future challenges organisations dealing with victims of domestic violence and law enforcement agencies will face or are already facing in some cases. The workshops created a safe and dynamic spaces for workers with on-the-ground experience to share their stories and to give us some hindsight into the reality of their experiences with online domestic abuse. This perspective is essential in shaping the work Privacy International does to insure we provide research and advocacy work relevant for those who most need it.”

The research team also submitted evidence to the UK Government through a written response to the Domestic Abuse Bill consultation. Dr Tanczer and her colleagues hope that their research will influence policy decisions as legislative proposals are developed and IoT privacy and security best practices are being formulated.

All stakeholder groups will carry on this partnership to further the knowledge base and effective response to the unique privacy and security implications that the evolving IoT environment creates.

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