Domestic abuse in US turns digital

SAN FRANCISCO • The people who called into the help hotlines and domestic violence shelters said they felt as if they were going crazy.

One woman had turned on her air-conditioner but said it then switched off without her touching it. Another said the code numbers of the digital lock at her front door changed every day and she could not figure out why. Still another told an abuse help line she kept hearing the doorbell ring, but no one was there.

Their stories are part of a new pattern of behaviour in domestic abuse cases tied to the rise of smart home technology. Internet-connected locks, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras marketed as the newest conveniences are now also being used as a means for harassment, monitoring, revenge and control.

In more than 30 interviews with The New York Times, domestic abuse victims, their lawyers, shelter workers and emergency responders described how the technology was becoming an alarming new tool.

Abusers - using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the Internet-enabled devices - would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power. Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse.

For victims and emergency responders, the experiences were often aggravated by a lack of knowledge about how smart technology works, how much power the other person had over the devices, how to legally deal with the behaviour and how to make it stop.

No groups or individuals appear to be tracking the use of Internet-connected devices in domestic abuse, because the technology is relatively new, although it is rapidly catching on.

Internet-connected locks, speakers, thermostats, lights and cameras marketed as the newest conveniences are now also being used as a means for harassment, monitoring, revenge and control.

In 2017, 29 million homes in the United States had some smart technology, according to a report by McKinsey, which estimated the number was growing by 31 per cent a year.

Tools like connected in-home security cameras are relatively inexpensive - some retail for US$40 (S$54) - and are straightforward to install.

Usually, one person in a relationship takes charge of putting in the technology, knows how it works and has all the passwords.

This gives that person the power to turn the technology against the other person.

Emergency responders said many victims of smart home-enabled abuse were women.

"When we see new technology come out, people often think, 'Wow, my life is going to be a lot safer,'" said Ms Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But "we often see the opposite with survivors of domestic violence".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2018, with the headline 'Domestic abuse in US turns digital'. Print Edition | Subscribe