Smart homes and connected devices can be found more often by the day. Those devices can add comfort and maybe a little bit of security to people’s everyday lives. They are usually very easy to install and set up and a new sensor, thermostat or lighting fixture can be paired easily with the existing environment. Removing a component from the network or repurposing it is just as easy. This is also what should be done when things between the humans operating the components are not as rose-tinted as they initially were. After a breakup this can become essential in keeping a vengeful (ex) partner from spying on their former partners using smart home devices.
Other than the devices we have come to love, the people living in those smart homes are not replaceable at the flick of a switch. Unlike smart home devices, humans are incredibly complicated.- The apparent simplicity of a smart home, paired with the sometimes complicated and irrational behavior of humans can lead to a sort of sci-fi, Black Mirror-esque nightmare – except that there is no „logout“ or “pause” button.
It is no secret that there are people out there who, for various reasons, want to exert the maximum amount of control over their partner. Smart home sensors then become almost a sort of godsend for those people – they allow the controlling partner to keep a very close eye on where his or her partner is in the house and what they are currently doing. If the partner leaves the house or opens a window, an overly controlling partner will know it instantly and can then use an installed web cam to take a look. When paired with (sometimes legal) surveillance apps, an overly attached person can put his or her partner under near constant surveillance.
Fortunately, though, this scenario has not gained a lot of traction - yet. The increasingly widespread use of smart home devices might change this in the future, though.
What’s especially difficult for people who live in a mentally (or even physically) abusive relationship with a controlling partner that it is extremely difficult to break out of this situation.
For outsiders it is of course easy to say „Just go away and leave“. The fact of the matter is: what has never worked back in any school when faced with the schoolyard bully, also does not work in those situations. It can even be dangerous for some people if they start putting up a fight. After all, there are many cases where emotional abuse sometimes crosses the boundaries to physical abuse. In addition, those who seek absolute control over their partner are often very skillful at manipulating others. This can even go as far as the “weaker” partner agreeing to the installation of spyware on their mobile devices: “I you care about me at all, you will install the app on your phone!”
Breakups are never easy. Ideally, a breakup takes place on mutual terms. Nobody hates the other and each partner still respects the other, even though they have decided to part ways. Unfortunately, we do no live in an ideal world – and in this world, a vengeful “Ex” can make life a living hell using the smart home.
Depending on how stormy a breakup or divorce is, smart home access accounts are not necessarily a key focus area. There are, however, some things that are possible with a smart home can be used to build up stress and psychological pressure. The possibilities range from switching on the lights in the middle of the night to turning off air conditioning in the summer. There are yet other far more devious ways of making life difficult for the now-single person. If the ex partner still has access to a web-based home automation infrastructure, he or she can track on a minute-per-minute basis when the house is occupied. Sensor readouts make it possible. If a „smart“ door lock is being used, the ex partner can also come and go as they see fit. Any cameras that are connected to the smart home might be used to take a peek into the house. This of course makes illegal activities, such as publishing illicit recordings of the ex partner during sexual acts („revenge porn“) a possibility that should be considered. When using smart door locks, locking someone out by deleting their phone or token from the system. Another scenario involves reprogramming a door contact so it triggers an alarm siren instead of turning on the lights. The potential for abuse has very few limits.
What may sound like a nuisance can develop into a nightmare – this is all the more true if the two now-ex-partners still live in the same household. If you leave the house for work in the morning, not knowing whether your key still works in the evening or when the lights are flicked on over the web in the dead of night, then this will take its toll over a long period of time.
A breakup between to people also needs to be performed on an electronic level. If one partner leaves the household, you need to make absolutely sure that any devices he or she might have configured are not accessible to him/her anymore. Changing the Wifi password and resetting any smarthome devices to factory settings might be a good first step. If devices are connected to a cloud platform, there are two options: either change the password for the platform login or create a completely new account. Note: since in many cases devices from different manufacturers are used, this step must be taken for all devices involved. Example: devices that are connected to Apple Home Kit, Alexa or Nest via vendor-specific online platforms.
When sharing an account between the two partners, one of the two must be locked out in a way that makes it impossible for him / her to regain control by using things like the “Forgot password?” function that many platforms have. This also requires rethinking the “Security questions”, because chances are that the ex partner knows the correct answers to many of those questions as they pertain to you (e.g. your mother’s maiden name, the name of your pet, etc).
If the breakup was stressful and stormy, you might even consider taking a break from smart home tech altogether – at least until the dust has settled a little bit. If a smart home device is not connected, it cannot be abused. The most radical, but also most effective method would be to purchase a completely new smart home infrastructure.
If you are currently experiencing such a breakup: make sure that everybody knows what’s what- Extend your breakup to the digital realm:
- Reset all your smart home devices to factory settings. This often requires pushing a button on the device itself for a few seconds.
- If using a cloud platform: Change the password or create a new account.
- If none oft he previous steps is feasible: Ask your ex partner to physically remove the devices from the household. As an instant measure, cutting power is advisable – many devices are battery operated and will cease to function after removing the battery.
Make sure that no device slips through: Window and door contacts, motion sensors, cameras, speakers/sirens, microphones, lighting, smoke-/gas-/flood detectors, light sensors, or connected door locks: include all of your devices.If you are living in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship: seek help.