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IoT devices may pose threat for victims of domestic violence

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse through technology or otherwise, help is available.
Credit: File photo

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In today’s world, we are more interconnected than ever. 

Our smart phones provide unlimited access to nearly everything: basic phone calls and texts, social media, banking, GPS, online shopping, and more. Whatever you need, there’s probably an app for that. And now that many of us have been spending more time at home due to COVID-19, we are exploring new options to keep us connected through screens, such as Zoom or Telehealth.

Over the last decade, technology has been slowly moving beyond our phone or computer screens. Now, it lives in our homes, vehicles and even children’s toys. Technology is evolving with us, where its goal is to make our lives easier, more seamless. However, there are many ways that technology can be misused, especially by abusers who are utilizing it to gain and maintain power and control over a current or former intimate partner.

In 2017, 29 million homes in the United States had some smart technology, according to a report by McKinsey, which estimated that the number was growing by 31 percent a year. Smart technology is part of something greater – commonly referred to as the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to devices connected to each other and to a device or app that can control them. Devices may be connected through the Internet, Bluetooth or other means, making them practical and efficient tools that can improve quality of life. Once connected, companies often are able to collect and share data about how people are using their devices, and about their environment, activity and interests. It is crucial to consider personal safety when using new technology or devices.

IoT devices range from basic, everyday items (health trackers, such as a FitBit) to more advanced smart home products (Nest Thermostat). Here’s a more comprehensive list:

  • Smart Appliances: Speakers, home assistants (e.g. Amazon Alexa, Google Home), kitchen appliances, TVs, etc.
  • Smart Home Systems: Doorbells, thermostats, lights, locks, security cameras, baby monitors, etc.
  • Wearable Items: Health trackers (e.g. FitBit), medical devices (e.g. pacemakers), sleep trackers, eye glasses, watches, panic buttons, mood sensors, clothing, etc.
  • Toys/Gaming SystemsStuffed animals (e.g., Talkie), robots (e.g., Artie 3000) and coding game sets (e.g., Harry Potter Kano kit).

It’s important to keep in mind that many connected devices are registered to a single account holder, who is typically the owner of the device. For devices in a home with two partners, access may be shared through controls. If the partners in a household break up or separate and the abusive partner has ownership rights, the abuser can maintain control of the device while outside the home.

An abuser having access to IoT devices can enable them to cause psychological harm, even when they aren’t under the same roof as the victim. For abusers, the goal is to both intimidate and confuse the victim by controlling everyday objects in the home. They can achieve this goal by watching, listening or threatening the victim.

For example, smart home systems can be controlled remotely by an app. If a victim is home alone, the abuser can adjust the thermostat to extremely hot or cold temperatures, or turn the lights on and off in the middle of the night. This is referred to as gaslighting, where the goal is to trick the victim into questioning their own reality.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse through technology or otherwise, help is available. During this time, if it is safe for you, we encourage you to reach out to a trusted person or an advocate. At the national level, anyone may contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-799-7233 or www.thehotline.org or view TechSafety.org’s Technology Safety and Privacy Toolkit. Statewide resources in Ohio include the Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio (SARNCO) 24-Hour Local Hotline at 614-267-7020 and the Ohio Domestic Violence Network (ODVN) at 800-934-9840. For local assistance in Franklin County, please reach out to Columbus City Attorney’s Domestic Violence and Stalking Unit or The Center for Family Safety and Healing at 614-722-8293.

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