• United States



Not hackers, but exes are remotely controlling smart devices as a form of domestic abuse

Jun 24, 20185 mins
Internet of ThingsSecurity

A new pattern of domestic abuse behavior has ex-spouses and ex-partners remotely controlling smart devices in victims homes.

The Smart House
Credit: Thinkstock

One of the conveniences of smart devices such as thermostats, lights, locks, speakers, and cameras is that they can be remotely controlled. But remotely controlling smart home technology has also become a modern pattern of behavior in domestic abuse.

Do you know the password to your router, to the Wi-Fi? Do you know how to reset your smart devices? If you don’t, then you need to take the time to find out. If only one person in a relationship knows how to control the smart devices and the couple breaks up, then the one who doesn’t know could appear as if she or he were having a mental break down when claiming they are being “watched” or that their house seems haunted as lights, thermostat settings, and door lock codes seem to have a mind of their own.

If a person did realize all the devices acting up are “smart” and connected to the internet, then he or she might believe those devices were hacked. Yet according to The New York Times, when the code on the smart lock changes daily, when the doorbell rings but no one is there, when the speakers randomly blast music, when the lights turn off and on, when the thermostat kicks the temperature to 100 degrees – those aren’t hacks; they are examples of “domestic abuse cases tied to the rise of smart home technology.”

Citing interviews with abuse victims, lawyers, shelters, and emergency responders, The New York Times explained how smart devices are being used by abusers to exert power, “being used as a means for harassment, monitoring, revenge and control.”

The report also said most smart home abuse victims are women, as it is men who install the devices and have the corresponding apps on their phones.

Ruth Patrick, who runs a domestic violence program in Silicon Valley, told The New York Times that some clients were actually put on psychiatric holds – their mental health evaluated – after abuse involving connected home devices.

“If you tell the wrong person your husband knows your every move, and he knows what you’ve said in your bedroom, you can start to look crazy,” she said. “It’s so much easier to believe someone’s crazy than to believe all these things are happening.”

No one seems to be tracking this type of domestic abuse either. Maybe the abuser decides it is just too much fun, as he or she won’t always stop even after the victim leaves the home.

Abusers — using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the internet-enabled devices — would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power. Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse.

What can victims do?

Connected device makers claimed they haven’t received reports of their products being misused in these ways, pointing out that making it too easy to switch who controls the account for smart home devices would also make it easier for hackers to access the systems. Instead, they suggested disabling the devices via reset buttons and changing the Wi-Fi password.

So, why not just yank out the device? EFF director of cybersecurity Eva Galperin pointed out that turning everything off only isolates the victim more. Jennifer Becker, a lawyer at a women’s rights legal advocacy group, warned that when a victim uninstalls the device, it can enrage the abuser and escalate to enhanced violence.

What else can the victim do? Legal recourse was called “limited;” however, if the abuser shares video taken from indoor security cameras, then it might violate a state’s revenge porn laws.

Police, first responders, and even domestic hotline helpers don’t always know how to respond as the technology is still too “new.”

Advocates are beginning to educate emergency responders that when people get restraining orders, they need to ask the judge to include all smart home device accounts known and unknown to victims. Many people do not know to ask about this yet, Ms. Becker said. But even if people get restraining orders, remotely changing the temperature in a house or suddenly turning on the TV or lights may not contravene a no-contact order, she said.

Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told The New York Times, “When we see new technology come out, people often think, ‘Wow, my life is going to be a lot safer,’” but “we often see the opposite with survivors of domestic violence.”

If you have smart devices, find out how they work and how to reset them. Granted, the clips below show fictitious hacks, but they should serve to show exaggerated examples of what could be done if one domestic partner decides to become an abuser.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.