Make tackling tech-enabled abuse a priority, MPs tell Government

A committee of MPs has warned of the use of ‘tech abuse’ where perpetrators use smart devices against their victims (Alamy/PA)
A committee of MPs has warned of the use of ‘tech abuse’ where perpetrators use smart devices against their victims (Alamy/PA) A committee of MPs has warned of the use of ‘tech abuse’ where perpetrators use smart devices against their victims (Alamy/PA)

A commitment to tackle so-called “tech abuse” must be made by Government, MPs have said as they warned devices including smart home security systems are being used to coerce and control victims of domestic abuse.

Work to address the problem should be made a priority, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee said, stating that the UK’s law enforcement and criminal justice system does not currently appear to be equipped to deal with it.

MPs warned that problems caused by tech abuse now are likely to become “even more prevalent in future”.

The term is said to describe a form of domestic abuse where perpetrators use technology, including connected devices and social media, to abuse their victims.

Committee chairwoman Dame Caroline Dinenage said a “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 committee said the use of technology “can broaden and exacerbate patterns of abuse and the reach of perpetrators, as perpetrators no longer need to be physically co-present with victims and survivors in order to inflict abuse”.

The MPs’ report cited data from domestic abuse charity Refuge, saying that more than a quarter of women aged between 16 and 74 in England and Wales experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives and, of the women and children it supported in the year 2020–2021, 59% experienced abuse involving technology.

Among its recommendations, the report states that better data on the subject is needed.

It said: “While there is no ‘silver bullet’ for dealing with tech abuse, the Government can do more to tackle it.

“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 Government should also reflect on how official crime data on tech abuse can be improved to expand the evidence base for specialists, academics and policymakers in order to develop a more comprehensive, co-ordinated response.”

The report calls for the regulator, the Office for Product Safety and Standards, to form a “tech abuse working group”, bringing industry together with researchers, specialist support services and public services.

It said this must be “more than just a talking shop”, and should eventually produce guidance and a code of practice to establish best practice for manufacturers, vendors and law enforcement.

Elsewhere in its report, the committee said the use of connected technology in schools and by children in their 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”.

It accused the Government and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) of having been “quick to dismiss our concerns about this issue”.

MPs said: “We urge the ICO to take a more proactive approach in engaging with manufacturers of connected toys and education technology.

“It should ensure that all products include: terms and conditions that are age-appropriate; privacy settings that are intuitive for children and help them exercise data rights; and fully explain the benefits and risks of data processing.

“Industry should be supported in this through comprehensive guidance, independent research and user-testing.”

Monitoring employees in smart workplaces should be done only in consultation with, and with the consent of, those being monitored, the MPs also warned.

They said there should be Government-commissioned research “to improve the evidence base regarding the deployment of automated and data collection systems at work”.

Ms Dinenage acknowledged the “undoubted benefits to everyday life” of technology, but warned “the flip side is the real risk some of these gadgets pose to privacy and personal safety online”.

She added: “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.”

A Government spokesperson said: “Domestic abuse is a despicable crime and one which this government is determined to tackle. That is why we published the cross-government Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan in March 2022 and are investing over £230 million of funding to prevent offending, support victims and pursue perpetrators.

“We will introduce world-leading rules next year to bolster cybersecurity standards across devices, protecting individual privacy and security, and our Online Safety Bill will become law in a matter of months – making the UK the safest place in the world to be online.”