By: Noelle Symanski
“Alexa, let my ex see all the things I purchased off Amazon and the list of commands I gave you.” This is not a command that a smart home technology user would be expected to give, but this command may still be a reality for users of these devices. Smart technology is creeping into homes at a steadily growing rate. In fact, 29 million homes in the United States used some type of smart home technology in 2017 and smart home technology is expected to be a $150.6 billion industry by 2023. Amazon, Google, Ring, and Nest all market smart home gadgets to consumers. Smart home technology users can adjust their thermostat, turn off the lights, or check who is at the door without even being home. Gone are the days of wondering whether you forgot to lock your door behind you – just check your app and turn the key from anywhere in the world. Appropriately, Nest’s slogan is “Control your home at a glance.”
This modern convenience is appealing to consumers but these new technologies also create unintended consequences. Many consumers and critics have voiced concerns over tech companies and governments launching users into an Orwellian surveillance state. As it turns out, intimate partners and family members are the actors currently abusing this technology. Domestic abusers have used smart home technology to invade victims’ homes – turning on lights in the middle of the night, changing the keypad combination on a lock every day, and cranking up the heat at random intervals.
According to the United States Attorneys’ Bulletin, “cyberstalking” may include, but it not limited to, “repeated, unwanted, intrusive, and frightening communication” or “harassing the victim through the internet.” This type of behavior is labeled as stalking or cyberstalking because the acts “would reasonably be expected to cause substantial emotional distress to a person.” 18 U.S.C.A. § 2261A. But do the charges of stalking and cyberstalking adequately encompass the type of home invasion taking place via smart home technology? At what point does the law acknowledge that a remote break in took place?
Courts have traditionally protected homes as sanctuaries. Smart home technology has already been used to invade homes, and the prevalence of this technology and its abuses are likely to broaden the current understanding of what it means to “enter” a home. If smart home technology continues to act as a method of control that is utilized by domestic violence offenders, courts and state legislatures should consider whether physical presence in a home is necessary to constitute entry. Lawmakers should brainstorm the impact that non-physical entry will have on traditional criminal codes.
For example, in Washington State, “a person is guilty of residential burglary if, with intent to commit a crime against a person . . . , the person enters . . . a dwelling other than a vehicle.” RCW 9A.52.025(1). While the type of home invasion that occurs through smart home technology is not physical, the entry has substantial physical characteristics. Individuals can remotely observe what residents are doing in their homes and alter the home’s locks, lights, thermostat, and even refrigerator as if they were inside the space. If an individual who is unwelcome alters the physical characteristics of another person’s home to cause substantial emotional distress, there is a strong argument that the individual has burgled because the perpetrator entered the home with the intention to commit the crime of stalking.
Additional Information: To find more resources on technology abuse, visit The University College London’s guide for information and support groups. If you live in King County and have experienced cyberstalking, this online form will allow you to file a report to the Sheriff. Additionally, if you are in an unsafe relationship and would like to seek non-emergency options for exiting, many resources are available through King County.