On the first night in his new home, Clint Basinger was unpacking a few stray boxes in the living room, when out of nowhere at around midnight, he heard a voice echoing down the hallway from the other side of the house. “Good night,” the voice said. “It’s bedtime.”
Then, he heard the sound of locks clicking. “I couldn’t do anything with the doors, all the windows were armed, all the motion sensors turned on,” said Mr. Basinger, who had spent 15 years saving up to buy the three-bedroom, split-level house in Asheville, N.C. “I had no clue what to do, so I just stayed locked inside the house that night.”
Turns out, the home’s previous owner had installed a smart security system that he neglected to tell Mr. Basinger about. “It was really disconcerting, being in a new place and having no control over what was happening,” said Mr. Basinger, 36, the host of a YouTube channel for retro technology and video game reviews.
These days, smart technology can be found within virtually any quotidian object in a home: televisions, fridges, voice assistants, doorbells, coffee makers, thermostats, lights, alarm clocks, vacuums, toothbrushes and more. According to a 2022 report from the technology company Plume, households in the United States had an average of 20 internet-connected devices.
As our digital footprints in the home grow, the myriad apps and accounts required to control these devices also widens. All this automation creates more opportunities for people to lose access or power over aspects of the home, or, like in the case of Mr. Basinger, never gain access in the first place.
“We tell ourselves this story that our home is the thing that we can control — it’s private, it’s protected, it’s our space,” said Heather Suzanne Woods, a communication professor at Kansas State University and the author of a forthcoming book on smart homes.
But that feeling of control — even in ideal conditions, where the person is the original device owner and they have sole access to it with a password they made up — is often not much more than an illusion.
At best, when we can’t fully govern our devices, the complicated internet-of-things ecosystems we’ve set up in our private spaces are annoying, time-consuming or costly to deal with. At worst, when bad actors, such as an abusive ex-partner, are connected to the devices, they can become tools of abuse — allowing people with malicious intentions, who are not even physically in the home, to surveil, taunt or mentally torment those inside.
“In cases where people have separated from their partners and are no longer living together, it creates a situation where people can feel like they did all this work to get away from them, but just a click of a button can bring back that sense of helplessness,” said Lana Ramjit, the director of operations at Cornell University’s Clinic to End Tech Abuse. “It creates the sense that you’ll never be free from this person and that the abuse is coming from everywhere. It’s more than just the direct ways of showing control, it’s setting the coffee maker off suddenly, turning off the A.C. or flickering the lights.”
What happens when you can’t get control of the devices in your home? Is your home controlling you?
A Feature, Not a Bug
Eventually, Mr. Basinger got ahold of his real estate agent, who connected him to the previous owner, who finally “let me into my own house,” he said. The previous owner created a guest account for Mr. Basinger to access the system, but he still doesn’t have full administrator access. After calling the system’s manufacturer, Vivint, Mr. Basinger learned he had to install an entirely new system to have full control over it, because the current one would soon be phased out. Having gone through so much trouble with the setup already, the thought of getting another one didn’t sound very appealing to Mr. Basinger, so he decided to leave it as is. Now, he can control most aspects of his home (for example, what time it tells him to go to bed — a service that he’s opted out of altogether), but not all (he’s unable to change where the devices are in his home).
It has crossed Mr. Basinger’s mind that the previous owner, who remains the administrator of the security system, could change the settings or spy on him. “If he really wanted to, he could just login and see who’s coming and going. He could theoretically change my temperature; it’s got all the climate controls,” Mr. Basinger said. “I get a notification on my phone when a door opens, so I’m assuming if the previous owner doesn’t have that turned off, he still gets those notifications.” Luckily, it hasn’t been a problem yet.
On one of the first days in the fall of 2019, Aaron Barden came home to find that the temperature inside his house was at 78 degrees. “It was incredibly hot, and I was just wondering, ‘What’s going on?’” said Mr. Barden, 32, an engineer living in New Hope, Minn. “That’s when I realized there was already programming in the smart thermostat.”
Mr. Barden had moved into the house a few months prior and had noticed that there was a Honeywell smart thermostat installed, but he didn’t think much of it at the time. He later learned that the previous owner had a custom heating and cooling schedule programmed in the thermostat.
“I tried to get remote access to it, because I was thinking to myself, it’d be nice to be able to just remotely set my thermostat to whatever I want,” Mr. Barden said. “Except I couldn’t do that because the thermostat had a registration code, which was associated with the account of the previous homeowner.”