It was the third time Katherine* had called out the same engineer to look at her ‘misbehaving boiler’ when he asked if she had an app that controlled her thermostat. She did not… but her soon-to-be ex-husband did. Suddenly, her bewildering central heating – mysteriously on full blast during last summer’s heatwave, then switching itself off every 30 minutes during October’s cold snap – began to make sense.
What Katherine now calls ‘the heating game’ had gone on for days at a time as her estranged husband used his remote access to change her smart-heating app settings, despite being in a different country. ‘It was absolutely freezing,’ she remembers. ‘My daughter was cold. It broke my heart.’
Her husband of almost 20 years had left her and their two teenage children in the wake of an affair, emptying the couple’s bank accounts and returning to his country of birth in the process. And six months into an acrimonious divorce, he was using his last remaining connections to his wife – their shared technology – to terrorise her.
Katherine is one of an increasing number of women falling victim to what is known as ‘smart abuse’, realising too late that smart-home technology, designed to enhance and simplify our lives, can have a more sinister use when relationships go wrong. Part of what’s known as the Internet of Things, smart gadgets – like doorbells, light bulbs, security cameras and speakers such as the Amazon Echo and the Apple HomePod – mean our homes are more connected than ever.
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Many of us innocently, even excitedly, chat away to our smart speaker; or we feel safe because of a security camera app. But, as Katherine’s story shows, these devices have the potential to open us up to unprecedented levels of control and surveillance.
Sian Hawkins of domestic violence charity Women’s Aid says this type of manipulative behaviour fits into the ‘gaslighting’ model of abuse. ‘It really exacerbates situations of coercion and control, making women feel like they’re trapped,’ she explains.
The term originates from the 1938 play Gaslight, in which a man dims the lights in his home but tells his wife she’s imagining it, as part of a plot to convince her she’s going insane. It’s commonly used to describe psychological abuse that causes the victim to question their own reality, but smart home tech abuse more directly echoes the original source. Framed as tools of convenience, this technology allows perpetrators to weaponise a physical environment, even from a distance.