At the same time, there is a growing awareness that, like all technologies, smart home devices also introduce risks. Most of the attention to date has focused on risks to privacy from personal assistants like Alexa, which can overhear conversations even when one is not speaking to the device. However, last year the New York Times highlighted a more serious risk that has received scant attention: the potential use of smart home devices by one person to monitor and harass another person.
The concept of psychological harassment is not new. The term “gaslighting,” which refers to the use of denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying to destabilize a victim, dates back to a stage play in the 1930s wherein a husband tries to convince his wife that she is crazy by manipulating small elements of their environment. Now imagine the following scenario: A husband has been routinely abusing his wife both verbally and physically. She finally gets a restraining order and makes him move out the house. He is angry. Sitting in his temporary apartment, he realizes that his phone has apps that allow him to control the temperature of the house, turn the lights on and off, and control the volume of the stereo. He decides to have a little fun by randomly turning on the house lights throughout the night. He also makes the stereo blast loud music when he knows his wife will be home. Finally, he plays games with the temperature: alternating between stifling heat and frigid cold. After a week of this behavior, he sends his wife an email telling her that if she doesn’t take him back, he will escalate his actions to make her pay for what she’s done.
This scenario may seem like an episode from Netflix’s Black Mirror, but similar situations are playing out today and we should not underestimate the psychological toll that such harassment can take on someone. There is clear evidence that cyberbullying has devastating effects on teenagers. Combining online intimidation with the ability to control someone’s physical environment could