Smart home devices are being used in domestic abuse, report finds

Researchers publish a resource list for smart home abuse victims

Rather than simplifying their lives, some smart home device owners are finding that their connected gadgets and appliances are making their lives a living hell. The New York Times recently reported a disturbing new trend that leverages smart devices as tools of abuse, with some ill-intentioned users (not even hackers), using their smartphones in order to remotely control locks, speakers, thermostats, lights, and the like, and wreak emotional havoc on those within the home. More alarming still is the use of these connected gadgets in exercising control, executing revenge, or other harassing and monitoring victims of abuse.

Now, in order to combat this phenomenon, a research team from University College London published a list of resources for folks who have been victimized by mistreated smart home devices. The six-page compendium includes blogs, written works, and organizations who can provide information and help to those who may not know how to use the technology that is being used against them. The resources seek to ensure that potential victims are just as well-versed in smart home gadgetry as their abusers and offers the information required not only to understand how connected devices work, but also how to protect oneself and one’s home from these and similar threats.

The resource list comes a few weeks after The New York Times conducted more than 30 interviews with domestic abuse victims, lawyers, shelter workers, and emergency responders, who noted that Internet of Things devices were leveraged for purposes beyond the manufacturers’ intentions. For example, abusers would reportedly control objects in their or their victim’s home, watching and listening to conversations and comings and goings, or in some cases, using them to “scare of show power.”

In some cases, the abusers would cause loud bursts of music to suddenly play, change the lighting, turn on or off heating or cooling units, or otherwise make a home seemingly act of its own accord.

Much of the challenge in addressing this new cycle of abuse, the Times notes, is that there is still a lack of knowledge generally speaking when it comes to how to operate many of these IoT devices.

“People have started to raise their hands in trainings and ask what to do about this,” Erica Olsen, director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told the Times. She further noted that she was reticent to discuss the abuse of smart technology because “we don’t want to introduce the idea to the world, but now that it’s become so prevalent, the cat’s out of the bag.”

Even within a single household, it’s often the case that only one individual installs and otherwise controls the smart home device, creating a power dynamic that can be exploited if things turn sour.

While some of these devices can be switched off to prevent remote control or can have their passwords reset, recent reports have shown that that is not always enough. For example, just last month, it was reported that even when users reset their password on Ring video doorbells, those who already had app access were not required to re-login following the reset. To make matters worse, a recent report found that most smart home devices are alarmingly easy to hack as their passwords have never been reset from the factory default.

Ultimately, if you choose to bring smart technology into your home, it will behoove you to fully understand how it works. “When we see new technology come out, people often think, ‘Wow, my life is going to be a lot safer,’” Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline told the Times. But “we often see the opposite with survivors of domestic violence.”

The new resource list will be updated regularly in order to stay as current as possible.

Updated on July 9: Added news of a resource list for victims of smart home abuse. 

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