Smart Devices are the Next Wave in Domestic Abuse

When you installed your smart thermostat or your phone activated door locks you probably did it for convenience, not control. But a new wave of tech-savvy abusive partners are turning these smart devices into the next wave in domestic abuse. And the courts are scrambling to keep up.

Imagine you are sitting in your home when suddenly the thermostat is cranked up to 100 degrees. Or your security system becomes armed while you are doing the dishes. What if your lights, your refrigerator, even your doorbell rebelled against you, all because you chose to leave an abusive partner. Those are the stories told in a recent New York Times article, Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse.

Automated Homes make life easier for couples

Smart devices are popping up everywhere. From single-use gadgets like smart thermostats to full-service devices like the Amazon Echo, this technology is designed to make life more convenient. Many smart devices connect to a user’s mobile phone, allowing them to turn on the lights while they are on vacation, or turn up the heat before they’re on the way home.

And they are catching on. In 2017, 29 million homes were “connected” using smart devices. That’s nearly double the 17 million early adopters in 2015. Smart devices are most popular in wealthier families, especially where one or both partners is an early adopter. They are also popular among families concerned with the safety of their young children.

In a healthy relationship, there is very little downside to these automation apps. But when the power balance shifts, it can leave a domestic violence victim with little to no control over even the most basic aspects of life.

Domestic Abuse is About Dominance and Control

Domestic Abuse Power & Control Wheel
The Power & Control Wheel is used by professionals to consider a variety of forms of domestic abuse. While it uses she/her pronouns, anyone can be the victim of domestic abuse. Image Source: The National Domestic Violence Hotline.

When most people think of domestic violence they picture the battered wife with bruises hidden under her clothing. And that’s not wrong. Intimate partner violence, rape, and stalking affect more than 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States. But just because a person’s spouse or partner doesn’t physically touch them doesn’t mean they aren’t a victim of domestic abuse.

When used in family and civil courts, domestic abuse is “a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.” This can be physical, emotional, mental, financial, or any combination of those factors. Some of the most common non-physical tactics in family law cases include:

  • Emotional abuse that causes the victim to think less of themselves or that they do not deserve better treatment
  • Isolating the victim so that they do not have contact with a support network
  • Turning the parties’ children into bargaining chips or participants in the abuse
  • Denying access to information and accounts so they do not have resources to leave
  • Blaming the victim for the problems in the relationship

Smart Devices Facilitate domestic abuse

When an abusive personality gets a hold of smart devices, it can create a system of invasive control that can leave the victims of domestic assault feeling powerless, and even crazy. According to the New York Times:

“Each [of the 10 domestic violence victims interviewed] said the use of internet-connected devices by their abusers was invasive — one called it a form of “jungle warfare” because it was hard to know where the attacks were coming from. They also described it as an asymmetry of power because their partners had control over the technology — and by extension, over them.”

Often, it is the powerful partner, most often the husband, who installs the smart device and sets it up on his mobile phone. When the couple separates, the survivor may not know how the technology works, or even what accounts exist. If the survivor is awarded the marital home, smart devices can sometimes allow abusers to continue harassing their ex-spouses, even after the case is over. The abuser knows all the passwords and can manipulate these smart devices to monitor their ex. 

But removing these devices has its own drawbacks. Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity for the Electroni Frontier Foundation told the New York Times:

“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.”

In cases where only one spouse had control, it may also be difficult to prove that the survivor has the right to cancel the service and uninstall the device. When they do, the abuser is usually notified, and that can further heighten the risk of more intense violence.

Courts Struggle to Protect the victims of technological abuse

As in most cases, technology moves faster than the law. If an abuser is using smart devices to stalk a partner or ex-spouse, the legal recourse may be limited. Michigan has laws preventing “revenge porn” — making sexually explicit imagery another person public without consent as an act of revenge — and electronic stalking. But these laws only covers a small slice of how abusers control their victims.

All too often, the family lawyers involved in the case simply don’t think to ask about security systems or other smart devices that go with the home. A family law judge could order an abusive spouse to uninstall the apps or transfer possession of the accounts to the survivor, but only if a lawyer thinks to ask for it.

Ending an abusive relationship is hard enough without having your technology work against you. If you are a domestic abuse survivor, make sure to tell your lawyer about any smart devices or other shared electronic accounts, so you aren’t left caught in a web of technological control.

Lisa J. Schmidt is a family lawyer at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents domestic violence survivors in divorce and child custody matters. If you are ready to leave an abusive relationship, contact Schmidt & Long for a consultation.