There's a disturbing new trend that appears to be forming in the use of connected home technologies to perpetrate domestic abuse. That's according to a recent series of interviews conducted by The New York Times. Reports point to a growing number of instances where smart locks, thermostats, lights, doorbells, and more have been used as tools enabling malicious actions by tech-savvy abusers. Of course, the ability of those types of devices to cause physical harm is almost non-existent. However, that doesn't negate their use for causing emotional distress or enabling controlling behaviors. Although there aren't any official figures with regard to how often it occurs or how quickly it's spreading, there are significant challenges presented by the apparent trend.
Abuses range from stalking and spying on victims to interrupting daily life and causing undue stress or anxiety. The former of those problems stem from the fact that connected devices such as cameras, locks, and even thermostats use automated services to track when users leave or arrive at home. That allows an abuser who has access to the system to effectively keep tabs on victims' activities. In the case of smart home cameras, that can extend beyond stalking and into acts involving shaming of the victim through the theft of private footage. Meanwhile, those same systems can be used to maliciously alter temperature, adjust lighting, lock or unlock doors, changing lock codes, and play bursts of loud music or other noises over connected speakers. While those occurrences would be minor annoyances if caused by buggy software or faulty hardware, they can be devastating when caused intentionally or repeatedly. The problem only gets worse when accounting for the timing of the abuse and the frequency with which it occurs. In the middle of winter, turning off a thermostat, locking the victim out of or in the house, and other similar actions could become dangerous. Each of those types of abuse is already happening, based on recent reports.
Primarily, the challenges to this serious problem are caused by the nature of the technology itself. Not only is it difficult for some users to learn the devices in question. The problem won't be easily solved by locking down access or making the tech easier to use since the abuser often already has access to the devices in cases of domestic abuse. Setting aside factors of intimidation, there simply aren't any easy ways for a company to address the issue programmatically. One solution may be to monitor for unusual behavior or use microphone-enabled devices to listen for abuse. However, that generates new problems related to privacy concerns and the possibility of misreported situations. Another approach may be to disable the ability to interact from off of the home network via apps and the internet but that would only be a partial solution and would remove some of the convenience that's driving sales. There also do not seem to be very many applicable laws to prevent or respond to a lot of the abuse that's occurring, beyond laws regarding misuse of private video footage. That may change as these devices become more popular and widespread since that will also likely increase the instances of technology-based abuses. For the time being, help for victims and those who are aware of an abusive situation still appears to be left to outreach programs such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline and associated services.