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Security & privacy

Woman claims her ex-partner used smart home gadgets to harass her

The connected smart home has quickly become the big thing in tech right now, wouldn’t you agree? Smart gadgets like light bulbs, smart assistant speakers, thermostats, cameras and door locks arguably make life more convenient.

That futuristic “Back To The Future” vibe can be Marty McFly cool, but are we trading convenience for our privacy and security? Can smart appliances be used for other misdeeds like domestic abuse? Don’t look now, but harassment via smart appliances is a real threat and is actually a growing concern.

Read on and see how this woman may have been a victim of tech abuse from her ex-partner.

Tech wonderland turned into a nightmare

Canadian website CBC recently told the story of Ferial Nijem, a woman whose life was turned upside down when her ex-partner used their former home’s smart tech to torment and harass her.

She said that their home was outfitted by her ex with numerous web-connected amenities – from connected door locks, smart lights, thermostats, speaker systems to 24/7 security cameras – all of which can be monitored and controlled remotely.

But this seemingly futuristic tech wonderland was turned into a modern living nightmare when the same smart appliances that were supposed to give them convenience, comfort and security were used as tools for abuse.

She said that her ex-partner exploited his control over their home’s technology to terrorize her. At one difficult point in their relationship, while they lived separately, Nijem recalled that her ex constantly manipulated the appliances remotely to cause her anguish and grief.

Like a house possessed, lights flickered on off, loud music blared over the home’s speakers, TVs turned on and off – all in the middle of the night.

“If anybody would walk into this situation, they would think they were walking into a horror movie,” Nijem told CBC.

Maybe due to the lack of tech know-how nor technical skills to deal with the problem, Nijem admitted that she was powerless to stop the abuse. Since her ex had set up the system himself, she wasn’t able to override his control. (Hmm, just flick the light switches to off and simply unplug the rowdy appliances, perhaps?)

“Shutting down the system meant shutting down the house, shutting down the lighting system for myself as well,” she confessed.

The signs of abuse started early

But what led to this road of techno-trauma? There were early signs of abuse, Nijem recalled. She said that during the early years of their relationship, she noticed that his controlling personality manifested occasionally.

She recalled that he would always monitor her remotely using the web-connected security cameras he had installed in their home.

He also rarely texted, but rather called her on FaceTime instead to check who she was with at any given time.

This paranoid fear of being cyberstalked – the relentless feeling of being watched all the time – can be understandably troubling.

“He was able to monitor me, you know, using the security surveillance cameras, even remotely, from thousands of miles away,” Nijem told CBC. “You’re never outside the reach of your abuser.”

And from there, as their relationship deteriorated, Nijem’s ex-partner gradually turned from the subtle control freak he was to finally the cyber-boogeyman who haunted their smart home from afar.

What this is telling me is that, technology or not, judging by his apparent personality, he would’ve found a way to torment her anyway – however, the smart home appliances he solely controlled just made it so much easier for him, giving him a heightened sense of power over her.

Domestic abuse via technology is a real problem

Nijem’s story is not a rare occurrence. In fact, with the booming popularity of smart home appliances and web-connected gadgets, marital abuse using technology as a leverage is starting to become commonplace.

Although smart appliances do offer many conveniences in the modern home, this level of connected control can have dangerous consequences for domestic abuse victims.

According to interviews conducted by The New York Times months ago, domestic abuse perpetrators are using a home’s connected appliances like smart speakers, security cameras, smart doorbells, smart lights and smart thermostats to harass, stalk and control their victims.

These revelations indicate that there are emerging occurrences of domestic abuse that leverages the technology inherent in smart home appliances.

Armed with the technical know-how and the apps required to control smart appliances remotely, the person who installs the equipment in a household can abuse this knowledge to intimidate and harass intended victims.

In fact, according to organizations who work with domestic abuse victims, smart home device exploits have ramped up in these cases over the past year. Even lawyers are now trying to figure out ways to include smart home technologies in restraining orders.

Similar to Nijem’s case, the smart appliance/domestic abuse stories range from the remote operation of lights to fiddling with the thermostat to raise a house’s temperature to uncomfortable levels to sudden playback of loud music by smart speakers.

Other dangers include spying and covert surveillance via smart security cameras. Although this kind of monitoring is covered under existing “revenge porn” laws, it is only illegal if the abuser distributes the video taken by a connected security camera.

Turning your house into a smart home is exciting but be careful! Listen to my Komando On Demand podcast to learn how to watch for the warning signs so technology doesn’t take over your home.

How to deal with these dangers?

Of course, the best recourse for smart home appliance abuse victims is to completely disconnect or reset these smart appliances.

However, since neither non-tech savvy victims nor their friends know how these gadgets work, it may be difficult to discern that there’s a pattern of abuse until considerable emotional damage has been done.

Furthermore, potential victims can fight back by learning more about smart devices and by seeking advice on how to operate them. Most of the time, a simple factory reset and a change of passwords is all it takes to regain control of smart appliances.

Conveniences aside, being well-informed and savvy about your smart home is your best defense, not just against hackers, but against domestic abusers, as well.

Note: If you are in an abusive relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 and 1-800-787-3224 for 24/7 support. App background

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