Lockdown Is Giving Domestic Abusers New Opportunities to Hack Into Smart Devices

Reports of tech-related domestic abuse are on the rise

Nic Murray
OneZero
Published in
5 min readJun 25, 2020

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Photo illustration. Photo: Maskot/Getty Images

“Oh, you don’t love me anymore,” said Ross Cairns when he showed up on the doorstep of his ex-wife, Catherine, one year after they had separated. He knew this, and all the details of the conversation she had with her mother only minutes prior, as he had been able to listen to everything that was said in the house following their separation.

The Cairns home had been fitted with ELAN, a smart home automation system managed by a wall-mounted iPad. Through it, the Cairns could control their lighting, central heating, television, entertainment system, doors, and alarm system when not at home. When taken to court in 2018, Cairns admitted to accessing the iPad, on which he was still an administrator, via an app on his phone. He had used the built-in camera and audio facilities to spy on his ex-wife after they separated and used the tablet to hack into her Bumble account, posting intimate images of her and sending lewd messages to men she had contacted.

Cairns, an electronics expert and former home automation engineer, was the first person in the U.K. to be convicted for domestic abuse that made use of internet-connected devices. He is among a growing number of individuals using smartphones connected to internet-enabled home products to spy on and even remotely control smart devices to display power and exert coercive control over their partners. The situation may have only worsened during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Millions have been confined to their homes, and for those whose houses contain numerous smart devices, the potential to be on the receiving end of tech abuse has only increased.

In 2019, 72% of women who accessed support from Refuge, the U.K.’s largest domestic abuse charity, reported experiencing tech abuse. This term encompasses a wide range of actions an abuser can take, including tracking a person’s location, installing spyware on their devices, and using home automation systems to monitor and control women and children.

“As these products and services have become more widespread, the likelihood of these abuse forms to increase and exacerbate is very probable,” says Leonie Tanczer, a

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Nic Murray
OneZero
Writer for

Researcher & freelance journalist based in London. Words in OneZero, Mel Magazine, Jacobin, New Inquiry, The Independent