How smart homes are being misused by domestic abusers
Like all products aimed at comfortable families with large disposable income, smart home solutions are usually advertised alongside scenes of domestic harmony, with families using the convenience to make their cushy-looking lives that bit cushier.
For the vast majority of consumers, that’s no doubt the case – albeit with more Echo misunderstandings along the way. But there’s a dark underside to the smart home, and its potential to be misused by domestic abusers to remotely show control over their current or former partners. Smart locks can be clicked on and off; thermostats can be set to zero in winter and 30 degrees in summer; smart cameras can be remotely tapped into; smart speakers can kick out menacing music at all hours.
The New York Times spoke to more than 30 domestic abuse victims, lawyers, shelter workers and emergency service operators who are beginning to see this trend develop. While historically domestic abuse victims gain a small sense of safety once the abuser has been removed from the home, with the Internet of Things, there is a sense that they’re never really gone. This is exacerbated by the unique way in which the technology is set up and maintained: smart-home equipment is typically installed and controlled by one partner – and when they go, they’ll likely take all that knowledge with them, along with the power to misuse it.
“It makes complete sense knowing what I know about the psychology of domestic violence suspects,” police captain Zach Perron told The New York Times. “Domestic violence is largely about control — people think of physical violence but there’s emotional violence, too.”
People can often reset devices with the correct know-how, but this varies from device to device. If this problem becomes more prevalent, then adding a simple way to take control of the account would seem like a sensible way forward, except that A) Such a process would create a huge cybersecurity risk and B) Could actually make the problem worse if the abusers use it to take control themselves.
It’s a difficult problem made more complex by the fact that such abuses may not be outside of the law, as things stand, operating in legal grey areas where technology has moved faster than laws can keep up with. For now, it’s a bitter irony that technology designed to make us safer and more comfortable has, for a small section of society, has the polar opposite effect.