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It’s the dark side of the smart-tech boom:


Realising she was in an abusive relationship with her husband took Jane a long time. 

After years of belittling her, calling her a bad mother, controlling her finances and limiting her independence, he installed a security camera in their sitting room.

‘It was like a little webcam,’ says Jane (not her real name). ‘He said he wanted to know the children were OK when he went to work but I know he used it to check on my whereabouts, to see if I was home. He said it was for the children’s safety.’

Stuck in the house — he refused to let her return to work after she had their three children — she could see the camera move when she was indoors. 

He was controlling it from his phone, even when he was miles away.

Next, he installed a Ring doorbell, an increasingly popular smart device. 

Ofcom, the regulator, calculated last summer that 63 per cent of households had a smart television, up from just 5 per cent in 2012, while 25 per cent had a smart speaker. Pictured: Stock image

Owned by Amazon, these video doorbells, which allow you to see who is at your front door, are sold with the promise of ‘making neighbourhoods safer’.

Not only can you speak to a person who is at your door, but you can be told immediately if anyone approaches or leaves your home, thanks to an alert sent to your mobile phone.

In Jane’s case, the account was owned by her husband. He, like many abusive partners, took control of all devices in the home.

‘He used it to see who was coming in and out of the house,’ she says. ‘He would get alerts on his phone the moment I left or came in. He used it to track my movements.

‘I felt absolutely violated and my anxiety went up day by day. It really messes with your mental state.’

A few months ago, the years of coercive control and mental abuse turned physical and police were called. 

Jane, 37, was put in touch with The Dash charity, which helps victims of domestic abuse, and they immediately recommended that she should search the house for any other smart devices.

For the vast majority of people, these are a convenience — gadgets that link to the internet which you can, as a result, control from your phone.

Ofcom, the regulator, calculated last summer that 63 per cent of households had a smart television, up from just 5 per cent in 2012, while 25 per cent had a smart speaker, such as an Amazon Echo (often called an ‘Alexa’) or Google Home.

This month, Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard allegations that a female management consultant ‘hacked into’ her ex-boyfriend’s Amazon smart speaker from 130 miles away in an attempt to force his new partner to leave. Pictured: Stock image

That figure will almost certainly be far higher by the time the Christmas rush is over. Sales of smart speakers at John Lewis have risen by 87 per cent over the past three years. 

And of the 181 televisions on sale from, one of Britain’s biggest electronics retailers, only three are not smart. More than one oven in eight is now smart.

Ring has even released home security camera systems, scheduled for release next year, that include a drone which can fly around your home, beaming images back to your smartphone.

But how safe is it connecting all these gadgets to the internet? How many people, like Jane, find themselves not controlling the devices but, instead, being controlled by them?

This month, Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard allegations that a female management consultant ‘hacked into’ her ex-boyfriend’s Amazon smart speaker from 130 miles away in an attempt to force his new partner to leave. 

She allegedly told the new girlfriend to ‘leave and to take her stuff’ by speaking through his computer assistant device.

The girlfriend, the court was told, burst into tears and fled the property after the alleged hacking.

The accused, who is also alleged to have used the speaker to turn lights on and off at the property, is due to appear in court again.

Is this really possible? Can you gain access to smart speakers on the other side of the country to play malicious messages and manipulate the lights, or take control of a smart security camera in order to spy on other people?

Yes. In theory it is easy, because of the very technology that has ostensibly made our lives so much easier. 

She allegedly told the new girlfriend to ‘leave and to take her stuff’ by speaking through his computer assistant device. Pictured: Stock image of a smart speaker

And it is happening increasingly, according to domestic abuse charities such as The Dash and Refuge, which says more than 70 per cent of the people it gives support to have reported tech-related abuse within a relationship.

A few years ago, that technology usually involved malicious texts or hacking into a partner’s emails. Now, more and more, it involves smart home devices.

Jane Keeper, Refuge’s director of operations, says: ‘Today we are working with 1,594 women who are experiencing tech abuse.’

She points out that many smart devices can be ‘triggered’ by movement, automatically sending an alert to the owner of the account — invariably the abuser who bought the device, owns the account and controls the password.

Open a smart fridge and the account holder can be ‘pinged’ a message on their phone.

Leave the house and the video doorbell can film you walking down the garden path.

‘Often, the victim is experiencing coercive control and the abuser will only allow her to leave the house for a set amount of time,’ says Keeper. 

‘Now, even if the abuser is not in the home, he can say: ‘I know that route to school [to collect children] should only take 16 minutes, so why did it take you 23 minutes? Where were you?’ It can completely track and monitor you. That can put real pressure and anxiety on the victim.’

Smart home devices have become so pervasive that family lawyers are now warning their clients to ensure they can’t be used maliciously during a break-up.

Jane destroyed the Ring doorbell the moment she was able to separate from her husband.

Katie Rainscourt, managing partner of Rainscourt Family Law, says: ‘Even if someone moves out of a home and doesn’t take the Alexa or Echo speaker with them, they can still have access to it via the app on their phone. There is a spying risk.’

How serious a risk is this? In theory, a smart speaker starts listening only once you say its ‘wake word’, which in the case of an Amazon Echo is ‘Alexa’ or with a Google Home, ‘Hey Google’.

But how does it know you have said the wake word?

‘It is listening to everything you are saying, otherwise how would it know you are trying to wake it up?’ explains cybersecurity expert David Jacoby, of Kaspersky Lab. ‘The microphone is on 24/7. That is what you need to understand.’

Listening is not the same as recording, however, and both Google and Amazon insist that they only keep records of ‘chats’ you might have with their speakers — and possibly a few words beforehand, not anything else.

Users can insist on seeing transcripts of these recordings — and then delete them — if they navigate through various menu options or can track down the right form to fill in.

But Rainscourt says there is a far larger concern with an Amazon speaker. ‘One of the most underestimated risks is the drop-in feature,’ she says. ‘This is where you are really starting to see smart speakers rear their head in family law.’

The Alexa drop-in feature allows anyone with access to the app on their phone to play messages — or even appear on the screen, if it is a screen-based speaker — of any Amazon device they control.

In theory, it is a very useful feature. Need to call your teenager on the top floor to tell them to bring down their washing? 

You can ‘drop in’ on the speaker in their room. Want to read a bedtime story to a toddler when you are away on a work trip? You can drop into the Echo Show by their bedside.

‘The person can still have the app on their phone even if they have moved out of the family home,’ says Rainscourt. ‘They can still make an announcement on all the Amazon devices. The person still living in the property can be exposed to quite an unpleasant event in front of family or friends. That is a real risk.’

Gaining access to a device for which you don’t have permission is certainly a serious matter and many would define it as ‘hacking’, although it is not quite the same thing as ‘breaking into’ a stranger’s device — yet that is also possible and does happen, according to experts.

‘Refuge’s specialist tech team has seen lots of incidents of hacking and gaining access to devices that abusers don’t own, either because they are tech-savvy themselves or know people in the industry,’ says Jane Keeper.

There are several ways you can hack into someone’s smart home devices. A standard speaker will connect to a CD or record player via a wire, whereas a smart speaker plays music by streaming it over the internet — and it connects to the internet via your home wifi.

Nearly all smart devices will connect to your home’s internet via the same wifi network. In most cases, you cannot get the gadget to work until you have linked it to your wifi.

I didn’t think I had many smart home devices but, checking my internet settings, I can see that in fact 17 separate gadgets are all using my wifi.

The most common way to access devices covertly is when you click on a dodgy link to a video or website that was sent to you inadvertently by a friend on WhatsApp or email.

‘While you are busy watching that video, a hacker can do a network scan in the background,’ says Jacoby.

The hacker is trying to find all the devices that are linked to your wifi network.

Many cheaper internet-enabled domestic appliances and devices have ‘backdoors’ — loopholes that allow clever hackers to access the machine remotely.

‘A kettle or a fridge is in a worse condition than a mobile or a laptop,’ says Jacoby. ‘They are not built to be secure — they are built to boil water or keep your food cold.’

Of course, there is only so much you can do if you hack into someone’s ‘smart’ kettle — apart from turn it off before it has boiled, potentially ruining a cup of tea. But there is a much more serious concern.

James Smith, head of penetration testing at Bridewell Consulting, a cyber security firm, explains: ‘Once you have hacked into a kettle, you can then, for instance, pivot to an old laptop that hasn’t been updated and has lots of flaws. 

‘And once you are on someone’s computer, it’s game over.’ In theory, then, a hacker can gain access to your photographs, your email, your bank accounts and all manner of personal information.

And if the machine has a microphone or a camera, it is potentially very scary indeed.

Both Amazon and Google insist that while smart speakers do ‘hear’ conversations — to listen for the wake word — they record only if a customer chooses this setting. ‘Customers can review and delete their voice recordings at any time,’ adds an Amazon spokesperson.

But is that always the case? U.S. police investigating a possible domestic murder in Florida last year issued a warrant to Amazon to access a recording made by the Echo speaker in the apartment where the alleged murder happened. 

The police confirmed that Amazon handed over recordings, though Amazon says this is not proof that its machines keep logs of conversations.

No one would argue against developments that can make catching criminals easier. And Jane — despite being controlled by various devices — was recommended to use her smartphone to record the abuse her husband directed at her.

Technology is a double-edged sword. But in rushing to embrace all the latest developments, might we be sacrificing an alarming amount of privacy and security?

‘Smart devices are usually shorthand for surveillance products,’ says Silkie Carlo, of the civil liberties organisation Big Brother Watch. ‘They risk building a world of constant, ambient monitoring of our private lives.

‘The move by prosecutors to collect more and more data from smart devices could easily be the start of a slippery slope where our phones really are a policeman in our pockets.’

And if the police can use them to monitor us all the time, don’t bet against criminals doing likewise.

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