The New York Times this week reported on the alarming phenomenon of domestic abusers using smart home technologies, including Wi-fi connected locks, lights, cameras, thermostats and speakers, as a tool in harassing, watching, and controlling their spouses or partners.

Smart Home Technologies Used for Abusive Aims

In recent years, technologies including digital assistants such as Amazon’s Echo/Alexa and Google’s Home, and other similar products such as Alphabet’s Nest smart thermostat have emerged. These innovations are intended to be used for things such as remotely monitoring and changing temperature, lights, and other day to day conditions inside a home while someone is away at work or on vacation. According to a recent report, in 2017 there were 29 million homes in the U.S. that were using some form of smart technology. The same report estimated that this number was growing by 31% a year.

Many of the technologies in question have built in functions allowing users to be able to easily switch who has control of the gadget. Experts say that this can inadvertently make the systems vulnerable to hackers and others who may want to gain access to them. It seems as though these technologies are also being used by domestic abusers. Indeed, according to those who work with domestic abuse victims, use of smart home devices is becoming increasingly prevalent in domestic violence cases.

The New York Times conducted more than 30 interviews with domestic abuse victims, their lawyers, and other relevant parties including emergency responders and women’s shelter workers. Their stories collectively painted a picture of how these new technologies and products are being used to monitor spouses, as a show of power, or as a means of scaring a partner. Distressingly, this was often done remotely, even after an abuser left a home.

Examples included a woman whose air-conditioner was switched off without her touching it, a woman who kept hearing her doorbell ring without anyone being at her door, and another woman who reported that the code to the digital lock on her front door being changed every day.

Concerns from Experts

Those who work with victims of domestic violence report that this new form of abuse is often aggravated by a lack of a victim’s knowledge over how this smart technology works, including over how much control the abuser may have over the devices, how to legally address the behaviour, and how to make it stop.

For instance, The Times reported the following anecdotes:

  • Erica Olsen, the director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, had noted that more and more people have begun to ask her what can be done about this issue;
  • Graciela Rodriguez, who runs a 30-bed emergency shelter at the Center for Domestic Peace in San Rafael, California had noted that individuals have recently been arriving at the shelter with stories of “the crazy-making things” such as thermostats suddenly blasting excessive heat, or smart speakers turning on and loudly playing music;
  • Ruth Patrick, who runs WomenSV, a domestic violence program in Silicon Valley had said that she has dealt with some clients who had been put on psychiatric holds after reporting abuse involving home devices. Patrick notes:

“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…it’s so much easier to believe someone’s crazy than to believe all these things are happening.”

Smart home gadgets can easily be misused. Generally, one partner in a relationship is the person in charge of installing the technology and therefore knows all the passwords and also understands how it works. This provides them with the power to use the technology against the other partner. According to several experts and academics researching smart home technology, connected home gadgets are usually installed by men and many women do not have all of the apps needed to run the technology on their phones.

The domestic abuse victims who spoke to The New York Times about this issue were all women, most were from wealthy areas where use of this technology is more common. Each of them said that the use of technology by their abusers was invasive, and a use of asymmetrical power since their abusers had control over the technology and therefore them.  One of the women interviewed, a doctor, noted that her husband, an engineer controlled elements in their home including temperature, lights and music, and noted that:

 Abusive relationships are about power and control, and he uses technology.

The woman told the newspaper that she did not know how all the technology in her home worked or how she could remove her husband from the relevant accounts, but wanted to empower herself and “retake” the technology. She had planned, among other things, to rip her smart thermostat from the wall.

Problematically, other technology experts note that uninstalling or blocking devices can escalate a domestic conflict, since the abuser can see that the gadget is disabled which may trigger additional violence and abuse, or because turning devices off can further isolate a victim.

What Can Be Done?

Advocates for domestic violence victims are beginning to educate emergency responders and others that when an abuse victim obtains a restraining order, that order must cover all smart home devices that are both known and unknown to the victim.

Problematically, the experts that spoke to the New York Times note that until the law catches up with technology, legal recourse may be limited. For instance, even if a correctly worded restraining order is obtained, malicious behaviour such as turning lights on or off, or fiddling with the temperature in a home may not violate that order.

It remains to be seen how these emerging problems will be addressed. We will continue to follow developments in this area and will provide updates as they arise.

In the meantime, if you are dealing with domestic violence in your marriage or common law relationship, and have questions about what can legally be done to address this, contact the compassionate and skilled family lawyers at Gelman & Associates for assistance. Our goal is the psychological and financial well-being of our clients to enable them to effectively start the next chapter of their lives. To this end, in addition to outstanding legal counsel, our firm also offers our clients a free consultation with a psychological professional if required. Our phone lines are open Monday to Friday from 8 AM to 8 PM. Call us at (416) 736-0200 or 1-844-736-0200 or contact us online for an initial consultation.