How smart speakers 'could detect domestic violence'

Enlisting thousands of smart speakers in Australian homes to detect intimate partner violence could be an "unprecedented opportunity" to help victims, a study has noted.

But Monash University researchers found the potential solution was also loaded with ethical considerations and could put the onus of responsibility on victims, produce too many false positives and negatives, and remove pressure from the government to address the causes of domestic violence.

The findings, in a report called Should We Embrace Big Sister, comes weeks after a woman was killed by her long-time partner in Brisbane, bringing the number of women killed in 2023 to 59, according to Destroy the Joint.

The study, published in the Ethics and Information Technology Journal, noted one in four Australian homes used smart speakers like those produced by Amazon, Google and Apple. 

It found companies including Google had already raised the possibility of using a speaker's sensors to detect the "emotional state" of those near it, while US university researchers had started work on artificially intelligent systems for detecting "screaming, siren, explosion, gunshot and glass-breaking" data. 

"Smart technologies for detecting (intimate partner violence) are already being developed – we suspect it is inevitable that more will be proposed in the years to come," the study noted. 

"The widespread presence of smart speakers in domestic spaces offers an unprecedented opportunity, both rhetorical and real, to enlist Big Sister in the cause of combating (intimate partner violence)."

US researchers developing the technology noted it could detect "a significant percentage of assaults-in-progress" but also said it was unlikely to detect every violent act and could deliver "significant numbers of false negatives and false positives".

The Australian study also identified drawbacks to using smart speaker technology, including data showing the gadgets were often installed by men, and that women in oppressive households were unlikely to be able to access their settings.

Monash University philosophy professor and co-author Robert Sparrow said despite the promise of the technology, policymakers and technology firms should carefully consider its use and implications.

Relying on smart speakers to detect domestic assaults, he said, could take pressure off governments to address the causes of violence, and could see women who did not use the technology blamed for it. 

"The insinuation could be that gendered violence is a problem in relationships between individuals that can be addressed in the home rather than a structural problem that reflects power relationships between the sexes in society more generally," he said. 

"Utilising smart speakers in this way would risk rendering women more responsible for their own safety while simultaneously disempowering them."

Prof Sparrow said anyone developing domestic violence-detection technology should enlist help from violence survivors who could deliver crucial insights.

"If it is judged that the moral urgency of intimate partner violence justified exploring what might be possible by developing this technology, it will be important that the voice of victim-survivors of intimate partner violence... are heard on the matter," he said.

More than 16 per cent of Australian women and more than five per cent of men have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner after the age of 15, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

License this article

What is AAPNews?

For the first time, Australian Associated Press is delivering news straight to the consumer.

No ads. No spin. News straight-up.

Not only do you get to enjoy high-quality news delivered straight to your desktop or device, you do so in the knowledge you are supporting media diversity in Australia.

AAP Is Australia’s only independent newswire service, free from political and commercial influence, producing fact-based public interest journalism across a range of topics including politics, courts, sport, finance and entertainment.

What is AAPNews?
The Morning Wire

Wake up to AAPNews’ morning news bulletin delivered straight to your inbox or mobile device, bringing you up to speed with all that has happened overnight at home and abroad, as well as setting you up what the day has in store.

AAPNews Morning Wire
AAPNews Breaking News
Breaking News

Be the first to know when major breaking news happens.

Notifications will be sent to your device whenever a big story breaks, ensuring you are never in the dark when the talking points happen.

Focused Content

Enjoy the best of AAP’s specialised Topics in Focus. AAP has reporters dedicated to bringing you hard news and feature content across a range of specialised topics including Environment, Agriculture, Future Economies, Arts and Refugee Issues.

AAPNews Focussed Content
Subscription Plans

Choose the plan that best fits your needs. AAPNews offers two basic subscriptions, all billed monthly.

Once you sign up, you will have seven days to test out the service before being billed.

AAPNews Full Access Plan
Full Access
  • Enjoy all that AAPNews has to offer
  • Access to breaking news notifications and bulletins
  • Includes access to all AAPNews’ specialised topics
Join Now
AAPNews Student Access Plan
Student Access
  • Gain access via a verified student email account
  • Enjoy all the benefits of the ‘Full Access’ plan at a reduced rate
  • Subscription renews each month
Join Now
AAPNews Annual Access Plan
Annual Access
  • All the benefits of the 'Full Access' subscription at a discounted rate
  • Subscription automatically renews after 12 months
Join Now

AAPNews also offers enterprise deals for businesses so you can provide an AAPNews account for your team, organisation or customers. Click here to contact AAP to sign-up your business today.

Download the app
Download AAPNews on the App StoreDownload AAPNews on the Google Play Store