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Abuse Using Technology

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Updated: 
December 11, 2017

Cyber-surveillance involves the use of connected to devices to monitor places or people. Connected technology could be used for your own convenience, but an abuser could mis-use the same technology to maintain power and control over you.

What is cyber-surveillance?

Cyber-surveillance is when a person uses “smart” or “connected” devices that communicate through a data network to monitor people or places. This type of connected technology has also been called the “Internet of Things” (IoT). Devices used for cyber-surveillance are generally connected to each other and to a device or app that can control them. For example, you may have a television connected to the Internet that you can control from an app on your cell phone or tablet or appliances like coffee machines can be connected to a network and controlled remotely with another device (such as your computer or phone). Devices may be connected through a home network, the Internet and WiFi, Bluetooth, or other means. These devices and systems offer tools you can use to increase your own safety and convenience.

However, cyber-surveillance also allows connected devices to play a role in how people and places are monitored. An abuser could use his/her computer (or other device that is connected to the Internet, such as a phone or tablet) to hack into your devices. Then, an abuser may misuse these devices and the systems that control them to monitor, harass, threaten, or harm you.

How is cyber-surveillance used?

Cyber-surveillance can be used in a variety of helpful ways, and you may choose to use cyber-surveillance to monitor and control your own property or add certain conveniences to your life. Some examples of connected devices that allow you to use cyber-surveillance include:

  • thermostats;
  • smart electrical outlets (with lights or other devices plugged into them);
  • entertainment systems (stereo, TV, etc.);
  • security cameras and motion detectors;
  • smoke detectors;
  • video doorbells;
  • smart locks;
  • appliances (refrigerator, vacuum, etc.);
  • nanny cameras;
  • pet feeders, pet cameras, pet toys and trackers (GPS systems that allow you to know where your pets are);
  • children’s toys and trackers.

These types of devices may be connected to the Internet or a data network so that you control them remotely through apps or they may be programmed to turn on and off at certain pre-set times. Other devices may be voice-controlled and complete certain activities on command.

You are using cyber-surveillance technology (in a way that may be helpful, make you feel safer, or for your own benefit) when you do things like:

  • control devices in your home remotely (such as the television, air conditioning, heating system, or the alarm system);
  • install a security camera feature at your home that you can monitor remotely (i.e., using the Internet to observe your own property);
  • use devices that allow you to control your car’s GPS device, locking mechanism, sound system, or allow you to start your car remotely; or
  • use fitness watches to connect to a network to monitor your own movement and goals.

How might an abuser misuse cyber-surveillance?

An abuser could misuse connected devices to monitor, harass, isolate and otherwise harm you. Connected devices and cyber-surveillance technology can track who is in your home and what they are doing. Devices that allow you to use cyber-surveillance are typically connected to the Internet or another data network, so an abuser could hack into these system (with a computer or other technology connected to the network) and control your devices or information. An abuser who uses your technology to track your actions may do so secretly, or more obviously as a way to control your behavior. An abuser may use cyber-surveillance technology to:

  • take pictures or video of you;
  • keep logs of your activity (that can be gained from a fitness tracker or your car’s GPS and reveal if you left the home to seek court protection, for example);
  • eavesdrop on you; and
  • gain access to your email or other accounts linked to the connected devices.

An abuser could also misuse technology that allows you to control your home in a way that causes you distress. The abuser could harass you by turning lights and appliances on or off in your home, adjusting the temperature to uncomfortable levels, playing unwanted music or adjusting the volume, triggering home invasion and smoke alarms, and locking or unlocking doors. Such behavior could make you feel uncomfortable, scared, out of control of your surroundings, or make you feel confused or unstable.

Additionally, an abuser could misuse technology that controls your home to isolate you from others by threatening visitors and blocking physical access. For example, an abuser could remotely control the smart locks on your home, limiting your ability to leave the house or to return to it. A video doorbell could be used not only to monitor who comes to the door, but to harass them remotely or, in combination with a smart lock, prevent them from entering the house. You can also see a short video on this topic.

Finally, abusers could even do more dangerous things when a car is connected and able to be controlled through the Internet. For example, many newer cars have small computers installed in them that allow someone to control many of the cars features remotely, such as heated seats, emergency braking, or remote steering technology. An abuser could hack into the car’s system and gain access to this computer to control the speed or brakes of your car, putting you in serious danger.

Note: Without access to your passwords, gaining control over your connected devices may require a more advanced level of knowledge about technology than most people have. However, other information could be easier for a non-tech-savvy abuser to access. When devices are connected through a data network or the Internet, for example, an abuser may be able to log into (or hack into) that system to get information about how those devices were used, such as when you come and go from your home or where you drive your car.

What laws protect me from cyber-surveillance?

Many of the laws that apply to electronic surveillance could apply to acts of cyber-surveillance as well, depending on how the abuser is using the connected devices to abuse you and the exact language of the laws in your state.  For example, if the abuser is accessing devices on your network to listen in on your conversations, perhaps eavesdropping laws may apply.  Additionally, an abuser who is watching you or recording you through your devices, may be violating invasion of privacy or voyeurism laws in your state.

Other laws could also apply to a situation where an abuser is unauthorized to access your connected devices, such as certain computer crimes laws.  Additionally, if the abuser is accessing your devices to engage in a course of conduct that causes you distress or fear, then harassment or stalking laws could protect you from the abuser’s behavior.

What can I do to make sure I am protected if I use connected devices?

In order to try to use connected devices and cyber-surveillance safely, it can be helpful to know exactly how your devices connect to one another, what information is available remotely, and what security and privacy features exist for your technology. For instance, if a device begins operating in a way that you know you are not controlling, you may want to disconnect that device and/or remove it from the network to stop the activity. You may be able to learn more about how to disconnect or remove the device by reading the device’s manual or speaking to a customer service representative.

If you suspect that a device is being misused, you can begin to document the incidents. A technology abuse log is one way to document each occurrence. These logs can be helpful in revealing patterns, determining next steps, and may potentially be useful in building a case if you decide to involve the legal system.

You may also consider safety planning with a domestic violence advocate who has some understanding of technology abuse. If you are already working with an advocate who does not have specialized knowledge of technology misuse, the advocate can get assistance from our Safety Net Project to help make sure you are safe when using your technology.