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.