Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse

When a victim uninstalls the devices, this can escalate a conflict, experts said. “The abuser can see it’s disabled, and that may trigger enhanced violence,” said Jennifer Becker, a lawyer at Legal Momentum, a women’s rights legal advocacy group.

Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said disabling the devices could also further cut off a victim. “They’re not sure how their abuser is getting in and they’re not necessarily able to figure it out because they don’t know how the systems work,” Ms. Galperin said. “What they do is they just turn everything off, and that just further isolates them.”

Legal recourse may be limited. Abusers have learned to use smart home technology to further their power and control in ways that often fall outside existing criminal laws, Ms. Becker said. In some cases, she said, if an abuser circulates video taken by a connected indoor security camera, it could violate some states’ revenge porn laws, which aim to stop a former partner from sharing intimate photographs and videos online.

Advocates are beginning to educate emergency responders that when people get restraining orders, they need to ask the judge to include all smart home device accounts known and unknown to victims. Many people do not know to ask about this yet, Ms. Becker said. But even if people get restraining orders, remotely changing the temperature in a house or suddenly turning on the TV or lights may not contravene a no-contact order, she said.

Several law enforcement officials said the technology was too new to have shown up in their cases, though they suspected the activity was occurring.

“I’m sure that it’s happening,” said Zach Perron, a captain in the police department in Palo Alto, Calif. “It makes complete sense knowing what I know about the psychology of domestic violence suspects. Domestic violence is largely about control — people think of physical violence but there’s emotional violence, too.”

Some people do not believe the use of smart home devices is a problem, said Ruth Patrick, who runs WomenSV, a domestic violence program in Silicon Valley. She said she had some clients who were put on psychiatric holds — a stay at a medical facility so mental health can be evaluated — after abuse involving home devices.


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