How Smart Home Systems & Tech Have Created A New Form Of Abuse
Designed to make life easy, web-connected devices are being used against women to harass, track, and even lock them in their own homes.
Most people won’t recognize her face or even know her name, but Chantel Nelson is a force to be reckoned with in Canada. She and a group of her peers are fighting an invisible war being waged on women across the country.
The Toronto-based social worker is on the front lines pushing back against technology-facilitated harassment known as smart abuse. The disturbing trend is a new form of domestic abuse that sees perpetrators use web-connected devices — like surveillance equipment, smart lights, and smart speakers — to hurt, harass, and intimidate spouses or partners inside the home.
“It’s getting more and more prevalent,” says Nelson. “Every day new [technology] comes out with new ways that make it easy to violate someone's privacy. People are using tools that weren't designed for stalking or tracking to abuse their victims.” The victims, she adds, are more often than not women.
In the last two years that Nelson has worked at Interval House, a Toronto abuse shelter and crisis-counselling centre, she’s seen several smart tech cases that could easily serve as the plot to a chilling Hollywood thriller. She’s counselled victims whose partners slipped small geo-tracking devices into their clothes and others whose partners infiltrated, co-opted, and then locked them out of their social media accounts. She’s even worked with women who found themselves trapped inside their own homes by smart security tools that were designed to keep out intruders, but instead allowed abusers to lock front doors and other escape routes with a push of a button.
The most notable story to hit headlines last year was about an American woman named Ferial Nijem, who says she was stalked and harassed by an abusive ex partner inside her own home. “In the middle of the night, I'm awoken, and my dogs are awoken, by this blaring music over the audio system. You have lights flickering on and off, TVs going on and off," she told the CBC about how technology was used against her.
As more connected devices for the home become widely available, experts say smart abuse cases will also rise — smart home device use is expected to grow by 60% by 2021 in Canada. Given that seven out of 10 victims of family violence in Canada are women and girls, it’s not hard to see how dangerous the home could soon be for some women.
Since smart abuse is such a relatively new phenomenon, there aren’t any reports tracking these cases in Canada. And many women are too intimidated to seek out help or find it hard to prove the smart devices in their home are being used against them. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening behind closed doors, Nelson explains. In fact, smart abuse cases have become so common in recent years that Interval House now hosts regular sessions to teach women basic online privacy skills and how to spot digital tracking tools.
For Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the rise of smart tech abuse is troubling, but not surprising: Abusers will use whatever tools they can to keep control over their victims, and smart tech allows them to do so when they're not in the home or if they’re forced to leave. “I remember one woman living in a smart home where the equipment was used to control temperatures so it would be hot one minute and freezing the next,” says Senior. “It was a nightmare and because the partner was the one that set up the system, he was the only one who knew the password to stop it.”
Spreading the word about experiences like these is crucial. “I don’t think we can try to combat or even start to track this problem without education first,” says Senior. “We [need to] focus on sharing stories that talk about how technology is used against women so we can make women aware of it and know what signs to look out for.”
The ever-changing nature of tech poses a real challenge to preventing and policing these kinds of crimes, says Kate Robertson, an associate lawyer who’s worked for the United Nations, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. “The rise of Internet-related smart devices means that authorities often don’t have the resources to track let alone solve it.”
For those experiencing harassment, Robertson suggests victims contact officials and document everything. Notice your smart thermostat refuses to work on the coldest days of the year? Write it down. Find your spouse showing up wherever you go? Write it down. Are your smart speakers blaring music every time you try to go to bed? Write it down.
Meanwhile online advocates are creating free, online resources for those in need. Last year, a team of tech researchers from University College London compiled a list of websites and online tools that show users how to search for cyber-connected devices in their homes, disable devices by altering factory-setting privacy modes, turning off default geo-location tracking, and setting up two-factor identification.
Irene Poetranto knows first-hand how technology can negatively impact women’s lives. The senior researcher at the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab has been the victim of online harassment and even navigated the tricky legal world to find justice when it got out of hand.
While Canada has basic protections in place to help victims, more needs to be done, Poetranto says. Some of that work, she says, should fall on the shoulders of the companies that make the technology. “Someone who is in the process of creating their own application must work to create more inclusive spaces as well as take on the fact that there are people who are abused and harassed using technology."
If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, including or smart abuse, Interval House can be reached at 1-888-293-5516. Interval House also offers a free-to-use platform that erases browser history and hides the organization’s name from prying eyes. Please visit the Ending Violence Association of Canada to find a local hotline. In the event of an emergency, call 911.