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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier … Significant Other - smart devices

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier … Significant Other

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the renowned John le Carré novel about old-school espionage, with its protagonist, the chunky, balding George Smiley on the hunt for a Soviet mole. But the novel is dated, tied to the Cold War era when computers were rare and certainly not mobile. If it were to be rewritten about cyber-criminality, the title might be changed to Hacker, Nation, and Significant Other.

Welcome to the third wave of cyber-criminality

One could characterize cyber-criminality into three waves. Hacker gangs such as ChronoPay formed the first big wave with pharmaceuticals and spam. This was followed by nation-state activity such as the (alleged) North Korean Lazarus Group and US/Israeli Stuxnet worm where the goal was to steal information and destroy infrastructure. And now, we are beginning to see the third wave: people misusing the smart devices in homes to harass their significant others.

Time to get smart

This third wave comes as a flood of smart devices are inundating our homes. The list of smart devices includes everything from thermostats, door locks, lighting, stereos, fitness aids, and TVs. These devices are usually pitched as something to make life easier and more convenient. Regardless of the precise device, this functionality usually comes down to two things—tracking the individual and remote (smartphone) access. And in both cases, these powers can be easily misused for the harassment of a significant other.

Command & control

The distinction between tracking and surveillance is largely semantic—the second option just seems more intrusive. While the use of smart devices to harass in this way might seem novel, it actually fits into an age-old pattern of control in abusive relationships. “Domestic violence is largely about control—people think of physical violence but there’s emotional violence, too,” stated Zach Perron, a police captain in Palo Alto quoted in the article. Not only do smart devices enable the network admin to follow what activities are happening in the home, but they also let them manipulate and control the domestic environment by changing the temperature at home, blasting unwanted music, and even changing the door lock combination. What more could a nasty guy want?

What’s the digital gender divide in a smart home?

There are numerous studies on the digital gender divide and how males have more access to the internet than females do. Much less is said about the digital gender divide within the home when it comes to device purchases and their administration. Off the cuff, it is believed that males are the main drivers when it comes to buying and installing new technologies such as smart devices. This knowledge gap over what technologies are present in the home and how to control them feeds the situation.

Legal remedies are limited

The American Bar Journal sent its members a snippet from the article touching on the legal aspects of smart devices. This means you can expect lawyers to include smart devices in the “Do not Contact” conditions of restraining orders in the future. In addition, they pointed out that misuse of a camera to take photos could violate some of the new anti-revenge porn laws. This is an example of legal remedies trying to catch up with the changing reality.

Reset the device if you can’t reset the relationship

Much of the harassment mentioned in the article happened during the closing stages of a relationship, not afterwards. This fact, pointed out by experts, makes it more difficult for the victim to remove or reset the device. But when the problematic relationship is over, the time for passive acquiescence is also over. The first, very small, and essential step, is to change the password on the home Wi-Fi network.


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As a PR Consultant and journalist, Frink has covered IT security issues for a number of security software firms, as well as provided reviews and insight on the beer and automotive industries (but usually not at the same time). Otherwise, he’s known for making a great bowl of popcorn and extraordinary messes in a kitchen.