It truly saddened me to read this article from the New York Times on how domestic abusers are using connected products to make a bad situation worse. Honestly, that’s an aspect of the technology I never considered. And it gives me pause when I joke about how little my family uses our smart home products as they occasionally bring up the “creepy” factor.
For one thing, I’ll stop trying to convince them of all the benefits of the next new gadget while also going over their concerns with them a little more in detail. The NYT article was a good wake up call to my sometimes being tone-deaf. And I may limit some of the more experimental devices to my own personal domain, such as the home office. Sure, I may not get the full benefits of the latest security camera, digital assistant speaker or motion detector, but I don’t want my family walking around cautiously in their own house when they should have a feeling of comfort and privacy.
That should help in my home, but what about people addressed in the main focus of the article: Those who are in abusive environments that are harassed even when they’re the only one at home?
These are people who are locked out of their houses, dealing with thermostats set to 100 degrees or feeling like they’re being spied on — because in some cases they are — through a security camera, sometimes with microphones enabled, in their home by a domestic abuser.
It’s easy to blame the technology here but that’s not the real issue. Any technology can be used for good or for nefarious purposes. Technology is a tool. The primary problem is who is using it and how. And there’s a commonality here because a characteristic of domestic abuse is that of control. Those being abused by smart home technology likely have no control over it.
Sure, you can rip out that web cam or speaker if you’re in one of the many terrible situations described in the NYT article. And with a few tools, you could replace that smart lock or thermostat. Essentially, you could remove all of the smart home gadgets to eliminate this type of abuse. That’s the “nuclear” option, of course and it may have repercussions when the abuser finds out what you’ve done. But it’s an option.
Ideally, getting administrator rights to your home router could be useful as well. In a very bad relationship, this isn’t likely to happen, unfortunately. But by having such access to the router, you have insight to the central point of the smart home because every connected device with remote access to the outside world passes through it. And that means you can see what devices are on the network that can be used against you: even devices you don’t know about that might be on a hidden network, although I hope abusers aren’t resorting to that type of setup.
Other less-aggressive options could be to cover up your webcams and the microphones in them with some black electrical tape. Or you could hard reset some devices even if you don’t have app access to them: You can do this with Amazon Echos, for examples and some thermostats, such as those from Nest.
Unfortunately, if there’s a current abusive situation, these actions could escalate the issue. However, to avoid this situation in the future, a proactive solution might be useful. What I mean by that is: Don’t allow a smart home setup in a happy relationship be used against you in the case of the relationship going south.
Not that I anticipate these problems in my family life, but I do share admin rights with my wife for our networking gear. I only did that for software reboots or the need to enable the guest network when I’m not home. Now I realize that it’s just smart practice to prevent any “evil” use of the network or connected devices.
And before I add any new devices to the home, I explain what it is and why I’m adding it. My family generally shrugs their shoulders and I was recently thinking of no longer telling them when I have new gear for the home, but now I’ll continue the practice. I’ll be asking them what concerns they may have about the features and functions to ensure I’m taking their reservations into account.
If you’re in a relationship or sharing a house and there’s smart home gear in the mix, do everything you can to take an active role in what is being used as well as how it will be used. Be involved in the setup process if possible and make sure you have equal administrator rights when possible. No, this may not help for those already in an abusive situation, but it’s smart way to prepare yourself for the worst, just in case.