CIO

Women uneasy about smart home technology

Potential for abuse and gender stereotypes top early adopter concerns

A study of 31 Australian households which have installed smart home technology has found the early adopters are concerned about the potential security threats for women, and the gendered stereotypes reinforced by virtual assistants.

The researchers, from Monash University, RMIT and Intel, interviewed early adopters of the technology and conducted home tours to better understand their views on the home automation.

Some functions of the tech were universally praised, including smart lighting and the ability for working parents care for their pets, home or children, by checking on them via security cameras. Smart lighting was also a popular function, and voice activation technology was often a source of fun and play.

But many voiced concerns about how the technologies could be used for privacy invasion or as a form of intimidation – particularly for women – by locking them in or out of the property or monitoring their movements and activities.

Study participants – which were mostly aged 35 to 54 years and had high incomes – also highlighted significant concerns about the potential for these devices to become hacked.

“Some householders were concerned that these devices could be used to invade the privacy of others without their knowledge or consent, and potentially exacerbate domestic violence situations by, for example, using a smart lock to restrict access to the house,” said study lead Associate Professor Yolande Strengers from Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology.

Their fears are well founded. One participant in a recent domestic abuse study by the University of Queensland reported smart home related abuse from their partner:

Neil set up a remotely-controlled camera system in the home, and monitored Susan’s movements in every room, including when she was showering and breastfeeding. She repeatedly asked him to disable the system, and at one stage feared it had been hacked. She recalls one occasion, as she walked out of the bathroom, the camera moved to follow her.

In 2018, The New York Times reported how smart home technology was being used as a “means for harassment, monitoring, revenge and control”.

Women in the study also expressed frustration at the “gendered stereotypes” of digital home voice assistants. This is a common complaint among users of voice assistants, given Apple's Siri, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana have feminine voices.

“The potential for uptake in smart home technology is huge, but there are also a number of important gender concerns that need to be explicitly considered by the human computer interaction design community in the further development of these devices,” Strengers said.

For one participant, a CEO and single mum, smart home technology provided both productivity gains and a sense of unease.

One user utilised Google Home’s scheduling, voice calendar entries, shopping lists and timers to help coordinate her business, housekeeping and parenting duties. She was also able to send access codes to people who rented her house during the summer.

“However, as a feminist, Angela was also disturbed by the feminised voices of her digital home and work assistants,” noted study co-author Dr Jenny Kennedy, from RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre.

“She had deliberately changed their voices to a man’s to challenge gendered stereotypes of feminised cleaning and administrative roles and avoid reinforcing these assumptions with her two sons,” Kennedy added.

The study - Protection, Productivity and Pleasure in the Smart Home – concluded that the sectors shortcomings were down to women being “underrepresented and underserved by the industry”.

“In the current smart home market, it is mainly men who are designing and selling smart home technologies, and also mainly men who are responsible for setting up, maintaining and introducing smart home to other householders,” Strengers said.

“This affects the types of devices that get designed, and their potential benefits and usefulness to other householders,” she added.

The eSafety Commissioner provides resources to help women manage technology risks and abuse.