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Harassment Spreads To A New Frontier: Smart Home Technology

A user chooses an option on an Amazon Echo Spot. [Nick Beer / Shutterstock]
A finger selects an option on an Amazon Echo Spot.

Earlier this month, Powell Police released hundreds of pages of records related to the case of Ohio State football coach Zach Smith and his ex-wife Courtney. One detail that arose from the files was apparent cyberstalking, when the email account for a security camera in Courtney Smith's condominium was deactivated without her knowledge, while a hidden camera was found inside.

Lawyers say they’re seeing more cases of such "smart home harassment," where abusers take advantage of connected devices like security cameras, which are only becoming more common.

“Here at the Legal Aid Society, we have seen survivors of domestic violence think they’re going crazy, because their lights are turning on and off, their song with their ex husband will come on in the middle of the night, things like that,” says attorney Tabitha Woodruff. “And they report it to police and sound like they’re lunatics because at first, it’s hard for people to understand and believe.”

These cases are often difficult to prosecute, because the legal system lags behind technological advancements.

“It’s kind of the Wild West when it comes to technology in that way,” attorney Dmitry Johnson says. “Courts are always evolving, it’s just it’s not necessarily in parallel in time with reality.”

Even when information like emails and texts are submitted as evidence, they’re technically submitted as “letters.” That's part of why digital harassment with brand new devices can be difficult to prove.

Woodruff says that device makers can help the prosecution process by providing logs of who is accessing devices, and from when and where.

"Where we see the problem is simply where a survivor of domestic violence doesn’t understand the technology that he or she is using day to day," Woodruff says. "Once you go take the time to understand it thoroughly, then you can use it to protect yourself instead of it being used against you as a weapon."

WOSU reached out to device makers for this story but received no comment back by the time of publication.

Woodruff says simple steps like changing the passwords and resetting devices can help make smart home devices a tool for protection, instead of harassment. Copyright 2019 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.