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Domestic Abusers Use Smart Home Tech to Harass, Control Victims

Home security cameras, smart locks, thermostats and other IoT devices are increasingly being exploited by domestic abusers to watch, listen in, confuse and intimidate their victims and family members.

So much for lifestyle enhancement and peace of mind. Some victims of domestic violence are discovering that smart home gear like locks, thermostats, lights and cameras are providing anything but convenience and protection.

Instead, these connected devices have become weapons of sorts for abusers to harass, monitor, take revenge and even broaden their power and control over their victims.

Damn sick, right? It’s an escalating issue I’ve come across anecdotally in the past but read about in-depth the other day in the New York Times. Based on interviews with victims, shelter workers, first responders, among others, reporter Nellie Bowles details how IoT technology is “becoming an alarming new tool” for domestic abusers.

As you might expect, abusers oftentimes use smartphone apps to access and remotely control Internet-enabled devices. Bowles cites an emergency shelter worker who describes victims with tales of “the crazy-making things” like thermostats suddenly cranked up to 100 degrees or smart speakers turning on blasting music.

“They feel like they’re losing control of their home,” said Graciela Rodriguez, who runs an emergency shelter at the Center for Domestic Peace in San Rafael, Calif. “After they spend a few days here, they realize they were being abused.”

I encourage all security professionals to read the NYT article. Here is one of the more compelling instances I know of for installing security contractors to play the role of trusted advisor. As Bowles writes, for victims these experiences are oftentimes exacerbated by a lack of knowledge about how this smart gear works.

Research shows that mostly men are installing the devices, and they are also the keeper of all the passwords. Hence, the power to turn the technology against another person. Emergency responders, no surprise, told Bowles many victims of smart home-enabled abuse were women. And simply uninstalling the devices is not necessarily the right answer. In fact, it can escalate a conflict.

“The abuser can see it’s disabled, and that may trigger enhanced violence,” Jennifer Becker, a lawyer at Legal Momentum, a women’s rights legal advocacy group, told Bowles.

That IoT devices would eventually be manipulated by domestic abusers seems all but a foregone conclusion. Yotam Gutman, vice president of marketing for IoT security firm SecuriThings, told me that most devices are not designed with security in mind and can be easily accessed over the web and exploited. There is readily available information online on how to exploit these devices, he said, and it doesn’t take much technical know-how to do so.

“Awareness is key. Security dealers and service providers should stress the risks embodied in these devices to their clients, advise them on how and where to set them up and point them toward brands that are trusted,” Gutman advised. “In addition, when installing connected security equipment, security dealers-service providers should ensure they configure the devices properly and guide the clients on how to access them safely.”

Gutman, formerly a consultant in which he supported multiple cybersecurity startups in marketing and business development activities, went on to explain that insider abuse is also becoming a serious IoT issue.

When remote monitoring is involved, service providers must ensure that only the proper personnel has access to the video footage, and that the privacy of the clients is strictly maintained.

“We’ve identified incidents in which insiders — either control room personnel or service center technicians — were ‘checking in’ on specific users/cameras at fixed times of the day,” he said. “Clearly, they liked what they saw there and wanted to view it again and again. This poses a severe compliance risk to service providers that must be addressed by the proper technological means, procedures, training and enforcement.”

About the Author

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Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for latimes.com. Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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