Imagine walking into your living room in the morning, only to have the television set turn on by itself, your thermostat click on to 90 degrees, and your doorbell start ringing — even though you can see that no one is there. Realistic? Unfortunately, yes. Welcome to the new age of technological abuse.
A June 2018 article in the New York Times by Nellie Bowles, entitled “Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse,” describes how the fact that air conditioners, doorbells, and so many other household items are able to be controlled remotely makes them prime targets for driving a partner crazy — or at least making them feel that way.
Bowles explains, “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 remotely control objects in the home through their smartphone apps to listen, watch, scare, intimidate, and confuse victims.
The article cites Graciela Rodriguez, who runs an emergency shelter at the Center for Domestic Peace in San Rafael, California, relating “crazy‑making” stunts, including thermostats suddenly turning themselves up to 100 degrees or smart speakers suddenly blasting music.
In the New York Times article, all of the victims were women — some wealthy, from areas in which smart technology was thriving. Bowles shares the comments of one woman, a doctor in Silicon Valley, describing the controlling behavior of her husband, who was an engineer: He “controls the thermostat. He controls the lights. He controls the music.” She said, “Abusive relationships are about power and control, and he uses technology.”
Consistent with these findings, other research has documented the rise in abuse through technology.
Abusers Use Technology to Stalk, Scare, and Scam
In “The Abuse of Technology in Domestic Violence and Stalking” (2016), Delanie Woodlock describes many of the ways inventions have provided new avenues to harass, scare, or intimidate victims in a domestic violence context.[i] Examining survey evidence with 152 domestic violence advocates and 46 victims, she shared that “technology — including phones, tablets, computers, and social networking websites — is commonly used in intimate partner stalking.”
Regarding the ways in which technology was used to negatively impact the well-being of the victim, she explains, “Technology was used to create a sense of the perpetrator’s omnipresence, and to isolate, punish, and humiliate domestic violence victims. Perpetrators also threatened to share sexualized content online to humiliate victims.”
Omnipresence, Isolation, and Exposure
Woodlock explained her research findings in detail. She noted that establishing a sense of control over victims through omnipresence has become much easier with advancements in mobile technologies. Her survey results revealed the most commonly used method of creating this sense of being ever-present in the victims' lives was through constantly calling or texting the victims. This is an increasing problem in a day and age where people carry their phones with them everywhere.
Woodlock notes that technological abuse can also create a sense of isolation, which can become particularly distressing when a victim is forced to change her phone numbers, close social media accounts, or otherwise retreat from a support system.
A third theme that emerged in Woodlock's research was the use of technology to punish and humiliate. Her survey results included reports of technology being used to maliciously share sexualized content. Examples included non-consensual sexting and threats to share explicit video footage — which was reportedly captured through hidden videos cameras in the house.
One woman in Woodlock's study described how her partner recorded sexually abusing her on his phone, then threatened to release the videos to her family. Another victim suffered menacing text messages threatening sexual violence, including texts that “were threatening, [e]specially regarding sexual things, which was particularly painful and shameful.”
Anecdotally, the risk of cyber harassment is familiar to anyone who uses Facebook or similar social media platforms. It takes one tap to tag someone in a photograph, revealing both their location and behavior. Stalkers and harassers use such tactics to intimidate or shame their victims, particularly when they can snap a photo in public, or share an existing photo of a victim engaging in compromising behavior — even if the photo was taken many years ago.
Note that a victim does not even need to be a social media user to be exposed in this way, eliminating the argument that people can avoid Internet harassment simply by staying offline. In fact, someone does not even need to own a computer to be exploited online.
Public posting, however, provides both exposure and evidence. Screenshots or printouts of offensive tags or posts may be useful to authorities as part of a criminal investigation against a perpetrator for stalking, making criminal threats, or conduct involving sextortion-related offenses.
When it comes to technology, some people are learning the hard way that knowledge is power. A working knowledge of modern gadgetry can enhance lives and offer home protection. Be aware, however, that technology is a double-edged sword, because it can be misused. Learn how modern smart home features work in order to protect yourself from intruders outside, as well as inside.
[i]Delanie Woodlock, “The Abuse of Technology in Domestic Violence and Stalking,” Violence Against Women 23, Iss. 5, 2016, 584 – 602.