Smart home devices being used to spy on domestic abuse victims

Woman found out her fiancé was secretly recording her inside home

HOUSTON – A Nest to control your home's temperature, Alexa to set your calendar or even play your favorite song, and cameras to watch your home while you're away -- there is no doubt technology has made our homes smarter and lives easier.

But some victims of domestic abuse say that same smart home technology has made their lives a living hell.

"It was awful, absolutely awful. Everywhere I went, everything I did, he could hear it ... he could see it," Aubrey said. "It was awful. Awful."

After moving in together, Aubrey found out her fiancé was secretly recording her every move inside their home.

"When I went to hit to get to his home screen, I double-clicked it and the app popped up of videos in the house and I'm like, 'Oh my God. I see, that's me.' And so I started walking around the house, and the app shows every room that I'm walking in, all the way through the house," Aubrey said.

When confronted, he claimed he installed the cameras for security.

"To actually see yourself on somebody else's device, not knowing that that's what's going on in your life, spooky. And as safe as it may sound, I felt very unsafe," she said.

Aubrey is not the only victim of this form of domestic abuse using digital tools. A recent New York Times story cited more than 30 women who claimed their partners had also used technology to control, and cause confusion and fear. The women claimed their partners had remotely manipulated the home's temperature settings, turned the lights off and on, and even blasted music from the home's speakers.

Sgt. Melissa Holbrook, with the Houston Police Department's Major Assaults and Family Violence Unit Division, said most domestic cases she works still fall under what she calls "old school" stalking and harassment, but the use of technology is an emerging trend in these cases.

"Technology has come a long way. Suspects in these cases use that technology to their advantage," Holbrook said. "Many times, they're doing it while they're together, even before the breakup and it just gets worse after they end that relationship. 'How does he know where I'm going? I think he's getting it from hacking into my computer.'"

Holbrook advises changing the passwords to all devices when a relationship ends or the moment you think your home's devices are being manipulated. She also said this form of abuse may fall under stalking or harassment laws, so file a police report.

"This is not a crime you want to keep secret. It's relevant because, that it seems like a nuisance type of crime, but the problem is that these people can quickly change and we don't know if they're going to show up with a gun," Holbrook said.

Chau Nguyen, with the Houston Area Women's Center, said the center has helped victims of this type of abuse, and even though the stories may sound far-fetched, victims should be taken seriously.

"It's that kind of scenario. You can't make this stuff up. Survivors might come to our counselors and say, 'This is what's going on. Please believe me.' What we do here is we believe and support survivors, validate what they're saying because it's true. You can't make this stuff up. These things are very real," Nguyen said.

Aubrey ended her relationship soon after finding the cameras. She later found her ex had put a tracker in her car's radio, too.

These days, she and her son live a simple life, free from the digital technology she said her ex used to spy on her.

"TVs, there's no cameras on them. All my laptops are covered. You cannot access my home from the new school of living. I've gone back to old school," she said. "You've got to use a lock. You've got to use a key. No Wi-Fi, nothing."

Besides filing a police report, Holbrook also said keeping a journal of incidents in the event you need to press charges later.

For a list of the services offered by the Houston Area Women's Center, click here.