When smart homes aren't safe

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Smart homes are supposed to make life easier and safer. However, when an abusive partner controls the accounts for these home-based services, he controls the home.

What makes a home “smart”?

  • Remote control of heating, lighting and other utilities, entertainment systems and appliances through internet technology/apps
  • Home security systems can also be controlled and monitored remotely
  • The presence of virtual assistants, like Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant, which may be used to control other smart home services. These assistants are often networked to a number of devices, including phones and entertainment systems.

Smart systems and appliances, and virtual assistants

  • Are connected to the internet
  • Each has its own password-protect online account with an app or website
  • From any location, a user may log into the account in order to do things like activate or deactivate the appliance/service, monitor its use, or pay bills related to the service
  • Anything “smart” has a digital record of its activities

Abusers are known to…

  • Manipulate utilities, like turning off the electricity or turning up the heat
  • Manipulate equipment, such as turning off the refrigerator or blasting music
  • Monitor a woman’s activities using home security systems (which include cameras and recording devices) and virtual assistants (which keep records of requests and other ambient sounds)
  • Use what they learn to increase stalking, psychological abuse and financial abuse
  • Use images from home security as “revenge porn”
  • Refuse to transfer ownership or close accounts associated with smart systems or devices after they no longer live in or have access to the home

Impact on women

  • If she doesn’t know the abusive person can control home features, a woman may be confused and fearful about what is happening
  • If she does know that the abuser has remote control of the home, the home becomes a prison in which she has little control
  • Like all other abuse tactics, this abuse impacts children who are living with her
  • Other people may not believe what she describes as happening
  • There may be financial costs: increased utility bills, spoiled food in a shut-off refrigerator, burst water pipes when heat is turned off during a cold spell
  • The abuser will have access to digital records about her home activities that he may use or threaten to use against her (e.g. camera footage, audio recordings, etc.)
  • Smart home systems are also vulnerable to hacking by other people.

What women can do

SAFETY WARNING: If you are concerned about smart services in your home, be sure to work with a women’s advocate to safety plan. Making changes to your behavior and/or to the services will alert the abuser who may increase his abuse. Shutting down such services will likely result in the destruction of evidence.

  • Learn what smart technology is present in your home and who has access.
    • Is there a virtual assistant connected various devices in the home? Is it connected to your phone and/or laptop? Your children’s devices? Does the abuser have his own assistant?
    • Is there remote access to the home security system? What is the security company?
    • Are there smart appliances, including home entertainment systems and household appliances?
    • Are the utilities networked and/or controlled remotely?
  • Do not use virtual assistants to get information (e.g. do not request information about your rights, child custody or lawyers). These devices keep a record of requests which the abuser can access.
  • If you have control of the systems, change the passwords. Explore further technology security with an expert.
  • If living separately from the abusive person, do not allow “gifts” from him that involve smart technology (e.g. children’s toys, virtual assistants) into your home.
    • If children receive devices from the abuser, they can be kept at his home.

Legal strategies for dealing with smart home abuse

  • Request that the abuser disclose smart home accounts
  • Evidence
    • Because virtual assistants keep a record of ambient sounds, these devices may be able to provide evidence of abuse, such as verbal or physical abuse. Home security systems may also record violence.
    • You will need access to the service’s account to access the recording. This history can be deleted, so if the abusive person has control over the account, he may destroy evidence.
    • Your former partner’s use of smart services can be added to the evidence you present about his abusive behaviour, whether or not you have the logged data.
  • Restraining orders and separation agreements should set out limitations on the use of smart systems and devices

Make the link

If the abuser has used smart home technology to monitor and harass a woman in the home, he will likely use other technology to monitor her outside the home, such as spyware, GPS and other legal and illegal surveillance tools. See our spyware video for more information.

Other tips for managing tech abuse are available in our Tech Safety Toolkit.

 

Thank you to the funders of this resource

Canadian Women's Foundation

Community Foundations of Canada
Durham Community Foundation
Equality Fund
Government of Canada