In a phenomenon being called “Smart Home Abuse”, smart home devices and appliances are being used by malicious exes to mentally and emotionally abuse their ex partners.
The smart home industry has exploded in the last few years, with smart home devices ranging from smart speakers like the Amazon Echo to intelligent thermostats, to smart door locks, to vacuums, to light fixtures and, yes, even to lightbulbs.
As anyone who has ever worked with one of these Internet of Things (IoT) devices knows, there is almost always a smart phone app that goes along with it, so that you can program the device, and control the device.
Ooooh, let us repeat that last..the app allows you to control the device.
In fact, pranksters are known to use the Alexa app that controls the Amazon Echo in a friend’s home to play tricks on the friend. The way it works is that the prankster has the app on their phone, connected to their friend’s Echo, and has the smart speaker suddenly play some sort of music, or news, or a myriad of other things that they can get Alexa to do. “I thought there was someone in the house,” one person told us.
So you can see where this is going, if in the hands of an abusive ex.
According to the New York Times, “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.”
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According to the Times, examples include a woman whose code numbers for her smart front door lock were being changed by someone else every day, another whose doorbell kept ringing when nobody was there, and a woman whose smart thermostat kept turning off her air conditioner whenever she turned it on.
Unfortunately, as of the writing of this article, there is no way to password protect most IoT devices individually. It sure would be splendid if, for example, you could require someone with the Alexa app to know a password that you had assigned to your Echo before it could connect with your Echo. But, alas, that is not the case.
However, there is a way to stop an ex (or someone else) from connecting with and controlling many of the Internet of Things devices in your house, and it’s so deceptively simple that many people don’t think of it: change your wifi password.
That’s right, changing your wifi password will stop a majority of opportunities for someone to exploit your IoT devices.
Of course, that won’t help for the devices that have a bluetooth connection, such as your Echo or your smart speakers. Bluetooth is known to have an effective range of just over 300 feet, which means that if somebody is messing with you via bluetooth, they are in the area. This may be a good thing, as it means that if you have a protective order, they may well be violating it, and you can call the police to come arrest them. If you are more concerned with making it stop (say it’s friends messing with you), you can turn off the device’s bluetooth connection, and only enable it when you are going to use it. And before you send us a howl of outrage, insisting that your Echo will only allow a bluetooth connection if you initiate the pairing from your Echo, there are plenty of people who have found that their Echo is announcing bluetooth to the world (here is one thread about just that on Reddit).
As people become more and more reliant on these smart devices in their home, we expect to see more and more of this sort of thing.
At least unless and until manufacturers figure out a way to provide individual passwords for each device.
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