Canada Needs an E-Safety Comissioner to Fight Digital Abuse

Given the near ubiquity of digital technologies in our lives, how can we counter tech abuse?

February 21, 2024
Families and activists unite during the Alberta Women’s Memorial March and candlelight vigil, holding photos of their loved ones on a chilly evening outside the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, February 14, 2024, in Edmonton, Alberta. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via REUTRERS)

Canada is experiencing an epidemic of gender-based violence, with Statistics Canada reporting an increase in gender-related homicides since 2019. In 2023, the federal government and more than 50 cities and municipalities in Ontario, including Toronto, Ottawa and Hamilton, declared intimate partner violence and gender-based violence to be an epidemic. With a woman or girl murdered about every two days in Canada, most often by a man known to her, a coalition of advocacy groups argued in November 2023 that femicide should be declared a national emergency in Canada.

To address gender-based violence effectively in the midst of this emergency, it’s vital to understand an often-underappreciated element: the facilitating role of commonly used digital technologies. From cellphones, GPS devices and Internet of Things (IoT) products such as smart speakers, technology is a key tool for abusers to intimidate, stalk, harass or control current or former intimate partners, a phenomenon commonly termed “tech abuse.” Abusers, for example, may send excessive or threatening voice or text messages, or they might non-consensually distribute intimate sexual images in what’s colloquially called “revenge porn.” Perpetrators may also control access to victims’ phones or social media accounts, delete these accounts, or even destroy digital devices to prevent victims from reaching family and friends. By exploiting these commonly used technologies, abusers can target victims anytime and anywhere, even after victims have left the abuser.

Abusers can also exploit IoT devices, which are designed for people to operate remotely and customize functionality, such as programming smart thermostats to automatically raise or lower temperatures. Perpetrators may use smart locks to shut victims out of their residences or program home security systems to remotely monitor residents and visitors within the home. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a woman described how her estranged husband tormented her and her daughters with the so-called heating game in which he would remotely raise the central heating in the summer and shut it off during cold spells. While there is a lack of scholarly research on IoT-related tech abuse in Canada, support agencies are encountering cases. For example, in a 2022 survey published by the BC Society of Transition Houses, support workers reported that victims stated that perpetrators often (8.79 percent) or sometimes (32.97 percent) used IoT products in the abuse. Rather than being a convenience for users, IoT can be “misused as technologies of torment.”

Given the near ubiquity of digital technologies in our lives, how can we counter tech abuse? One response is strengthening legislation modelled after laws in the United Kingdom. New Democratic Party MP Laurel Collins’s private member’s bill, C-332, proposes to criminalize controlling or coercive behaviour in the context of intimate partner violence. Currently in its first reading before the House of Commons, the bill has strong potential to become law as it has the support of the Liberals and Conservatives. The bill would criminalize conduct that has a “significant impact” on an individual, including causing fear or alarm, decline of physical or mental health, limited ability to safeguard themselves or their children, or restricting social activities or communication with others. While the bill does not explicitly mention technology, it could potentially capture technology-facilitated acts that cause fear, such as harassment.

Canada would also benefit from following Australia’s lead in establishing an e-safety commissioner, a national independent public regulator. In Australia, this regulator has powers relating to cyberbullying, image-based abuse, and illegal and harmful online content; partners with law enforcement to remove certain types of illegal online content; and conducts research and develops public resources for various groups affected by online harms.

A Canadian e-safety commissioner could focus on addressing, coordinating regulatory responses to, and tracking harms of illegal and harmful online content. The regulator could also coordinate a resourced, comprehensive National Action Plan on Violence Against Women and Gender-Based Violence, which is a key recommendation of the Canadian Network of Women’s Shelters and Transition Houses. Relatedly, this position should ensure victims and support organizations have access to timely, actionable and up-to-date information on how abusers use digital technologies and effective strategies to counter this abuse.

Finally, there is the nature of the technology itself. Some technology companies have proposed voluntary design principles with the goal of designing out abuse of IoT products. For example, IBM recommends that users be alerted when the product’s remote functionality is triggered, such as when an ex-partner remotely activates a smart speaker to scare the home’s inhabitants. The problem, however, is that companies have little commercial interest in voluntarily implementing design changes, such as maximizing privacy. This is because such amendments threaten the companies’ commercial interests in maximizing data capture and monetizing data flows, as I explain in my recently published co-authored book, The New Knowledge: Information, Data and the Remaking of Global Power. While voluntary, industry-led initiatives are likely to be ineffective, an e-safety commissioner could potentially work with technology companies to develop industry standards and even mandatory requirements to address tech abuse.

As we are in a state of national emergency with gender-based violence, there is an urgent need for action in Canada. Understanding and countering tech abuse must be a key part of the policy discussions.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Natasha Tusikov is an associate professor of criminology in the Department of Social Science at York University and a visiting fellow with the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University.