In the Lucinda Williams song “Changed the Locks”—first released in 1988, then again in 1996 by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as “Change the Locks”—the singer describes a number of things you have to change to insulate yourself from an ex:
I changed the lock on my front door, I changed the number on my phone
I changed the kind of car I drive, I changed the kind of clothes I wear
I changed the tracks underneath the train, I changed the name of this town…
There’s nary a mention of one of the most obvious things you have to change after a messy breakup today: a password. Malicious exes now have access to a world of tech-facilitated stalking methods, and it’s important to lock them out of your accounts. Your Netflix, alas, is the least of the worries here.
While “passwords” may have once meant simply banking PINs and social media passwords—which can do an awful lot of danger on their own—we now also have to remember to update access information for all sorts of apps and devices. A woman recently discovered that she still had access to her old car’s Car-Net telematics system—including location, mileage, and the status of the locks—months after selling it. Imagine that in the hands of a jilted ex-lover. A friend of mine, meanwhile, still has access her two-timing ex-boyfriend’s Uber account—she’s only used it to take a couple of free rides, but the potential for tracking is clear. In his series “Should This Things Be Smart?,” Justin Peters questions the technification of everyday objects, from toothbrushes to socks: In the wrong hands, a GPS-enabled dog collar could help a stalker knowing where and when his obsession walks the pup.
But it appears that changing a password isn’t always enough. According to the Information, a Miami man recently discovered that his ex-boyfriend was able to keep tabs on him through his Ring doorbell’s camera. Ring, which was acquired by Amazon in February, makes camera-equipped doorbells that allow owners to check who’s at the door via an app rather than the old-fashioned peephole. The Information reported that Jesus Echezarreta’s ex told him he needed to walk the dog more often—because the ex had been snooping on the doorbell app’s video stream. The ex apparently remained logged in even after the password had been changed. A security flaw meant that users weren’t required to log back in after a password change—meaning a change in the entire bell would be required to lock the ex-partner out. A Ring spokesperson told the Information that the app has been updated so that all users are logged out after a password change, but Gizmodo reported Friday that some users are still left logged in 24 hours later.
August Home—another home security device, which lets digital assistants like Siri and Alexa unlock the front door—faced similar issues early on, with one user’s neighbor able to “pick” the lock with a simple “Hey Siri, unlock the front door.” Apple’s Siri now requires users unlock their iPhone or iPad first, while Amazon’s Alexa requires a numeric passcode to be spoken aloud—so it’s only those (formerly) in your life you need to worry about. In other words, don’t forget to disconnect your ex’s iPhone from your August Home and change that spoken Alexa passcode for purchases, too.
It raises the question: Is the smart home a safe space? In theory, in-home technology may protect us from strangers and intruders, but it can put us even more at risk from those “closest” to us—those whom women are already at most risk from, with more than half of women murdered in the U.S. killed by a current or former partner. With shared devices becoming a normal part of co-habitation, estranged partners and relatives have creepy new ways to maintain access to and control over their victims’ lives.
It’s no secret that technology has long been used to facilitate harassment by abusive partners—from phone calls to emails to Facebook pokes. But as tech gets smarter, the potential for creative cybercontrol only grows. In one disturbing instance, a violent former partner was able to track his former partner and daughter from hideout to hideout through a GPS device he had installed in his daughter’s doll. And it’s not just a matter of being watched or tracked: Echezarreta told the Information that his ex was also able to harass him by ringing the doorbell remotely in the middle of the night, and the same could surely be done with lights, music, heating, and anything else in the home synced up to an app. In a Future Tense short story, “Domestic Violence,” futurist Madeline Ashby devises a controlling husband who robs his wife of agency by programming the front door to remain locked unless she did the chicken dance. As Ian Harris, the technology safety legal manager for the National Network to End Domestic Violence Safety Net, wrote in response to the story, smart-home tech creates the potential for unique forms of abuse, chipping away at the sense of safety and security the home once represented.
Admittedly, smart-home technology has sometimes protected people from their abusive partners. In 2017, a smart speaker called the police on a domestic abuser with a gun after he asked “did you call the sheriffs?”—which it interpreted as “call the sheriffs.” A fortunate mischoice of words.
Thirty years later, it seems Williams’ lyrics may need an update:
I changed the smart bell on my door, I changed the passcode on my lock,
I changed the access to Car-Net, I changed the collar on my dog,
I changed the tracker in my sock, I changed the name of my smartphone …