Our homes, workplaces, and vehicles are rapidly being filled with “smart” and “connected” devices that promise to increase convenience, improve energy savings and strengthen personal security. These devices and systems offer potential tools survivors can use to strategically increase their safety.
Unfortunately, these devices and the systems that control them also provide yet another, highly invasive way that technology can be misused to monitor, harass, threaten, or harm women.
WHAT IS “IOT”?
The Internet of Things refers to devices connected to each other and to a device or app that can control them. These devices may be connected through a home network, the Internet and WiFi, Bluetooth, or other means.
These devices, systems, or apps allow remote control of Internet-connected devices in the home. Please note that some of the technologies listed below are not yet available in Canada but some have anticipated 2018 launch dates and therefore are kept in this document. The technologies are:
These common devices might also be part of home automation network:
IoT MISUSE AS A TACTIC OF ABUSE
Home automation devices and systems can be misused to monitor, harass, isolate and otherwise harm women. The technology can track who is in the home and what they are doing. Such surveillance might be done secretly, or overtly as a way to control behavior – by capturing images, keeping activity logs, eavesdropping, and gaining access to email or other accounts linked to the connected devices.
Home automation technology can also be misused to cause distress and harm by turning lights and appliances on or off, adjusting the temperature to uncomfortable levels, playing unwanted music or adjusting the volume, triggering home invasion and smoke alarms, and locking or unlocking doors. This kind of harassment can cause significant sleep disruption and trigger traumatic reactions.
Home automation may also be misused to isolate a woman by threatening visitors, posting private video or images without consent, and blocking physical access. For example, smart locks could be remotely controlled, limiting a woman’s ability to leave the house or to return to it. A video doorbell could be used not only to monitor who comes to the door, but to harass them remotely or, in combination with a smart lock, prevent them from entering the house.
People with disabilities might experience additional harm when a caregiver, family member or roommate takes control, limits access, or damages the system or devices, as might happen with other assistive technology.
SAFETY PLANNING AND HOME AUTOMATION MISUSE
As with all safety planning, each woman’s experience and priorities should determine the course of action. Identifying the technology being misused and taking steps to decrease related risks will take time, energy, and access to information.
If a woman suspects that a device is being misused, they can begin to document the incidents. Our technology abuse log is one way to document each occurrence. These logs can be helpful in revealing patterns, determining next steps, and may potentially be useful in building a case if the survivor chooses to involve the legal system.
Ask questions that can help identify what the person could be doing, such as:
Once the devices and services that might be involved have been identified, particularly what sort of system could be controlling the devices, a next step would be to identify options for regaining control of the system. For instance, if a personal assistant device is being misused, can the account be accessed by you and the password changed to lock out unauthorized access? If it is an app, can the system, network, or devices be reconfigured to block access?
Potential approaches include:
NOTE: It is important to safety plan around the possibility that cutting off remote control may escalate harmful behavior.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE AND HOME AUTOMATION
As is the case with many kinds of emerging technology, high costs currently make some of these devices more prevalent in wealthier homes and businesses. That said, when working with women, we shouldn’t make assumptions about the use of IoT devices based on economic status. And as costs come down, the devices will also become more widespread. Bear in mind that these devices may also be used by other parties in ways that can compound trauma. For example, a woman in subsidized housing might find that a landlord is misusing a video doorbell to restrict access or inappropriately monitor activity.
USING HOME AUTOMATION TO INCREASE SAFETY
These same systems and devices that may be misused to harm survivors can also be used to protect privacy and enhance safety. Here are some examples:
CONSIDERATIONS WITH NEW DEVICES
When considering buying new home automation devices, there are a few questions to consider:
©2019 BC Society of Transition Houses, Technology Safety Project.
Adapted from and in cooperation with the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, United States