Anna Kodé of The New York Times wrote a provocative article called Unwanted Connection: Who Has Control of Your Smart Home? that was published on Friday.
I started out reading this article with alarm. I had never considered what would happen if I bought a house that had some Smart Home features that weren’t turned over to me as the buyer.
But, as I continued to think about the new-house-purchase scenarios discussed in this article, and compared it to the experience that my wife and I had buying a house in 2020, I realized something. The easiest explanation for how two of these lack of control scenarios happened is that the buyer failed to read the documentation that the seller needed to produce to comply with real estate transaction laws.
However, the article later discusses the very important issue of using Smart Home technology as a new way of inflicting domestic abuse. This section of the article is very important and deserved to be the lede in this story.
New Homeowner Closes on House, But Security System is Still Controlled by the Seller
The article begins with a discussion of how Clint Basinger learned that his new home was controlled by a smart security system that wasn’t turned over to him in the home sale closing process.
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.Anna Kodé, Unwanted Connection: Who Has Control of Your Smart Home?, The New York Times, February 17, 2023
I thought, surely something in a Seller’s Disclosure Statement or a Home Inspection Report would indicate that a security system such as Vivint is installed before a new homeowner moved into their home.
So I checked the Seller’s Disclosure Statement from when we purchased our house in 2020. In the section “16. Other Equipment and Appliances” there is an item “Security alarm system”.
This is an indication that, at least in Pennsylvania, it’s highly unlikely that a seller would be able to sell a house without making the buyer aware of an installed security system.
I know when I got the Seller’s Disclosure Statement for this house, I read it. I made sure to ask the real estate agent who showed us the house what the “Security alarm system” was referring to. He showed us the security panel and other security features of the house. Therefore, when our offer was accepted, I asked my agent to ask the seller’s agent, how would ownership and control of those systems be turned over?
Reading this portion of Anna Kodé’s article makes me wonder how many house closings during the Pandemic took place on such an aggressive timetable that buyers didn’t know or care what they were buying, so long as it was a property that met their most basic needs?
An Engineer Buys a House Without Knowing How to Control HVAC System
The article goes on to discuss a situation where another new home buyer inherited an Internet-connected thermostat that was registered to the previous homeowner. The new buyer in this case was “an engineer”.
What kind of engineer buys a house and doesn’t give any thought to the thermostat or how it works?
Looking back at the Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement we got when we bought our house in 2020, the pages 6 and 7 cover Heating System, Air Conditioning System, Electrical System, and Other Equipment and Appliances.
I think that these sections of the Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement for Pennsylvania could be more explicit about how the Heating System and Air Conditioning System are controlled. But, as I looked around the house, I asked the real estate agent who showed us the house why there were three different thermostats in the house (one on each floor), and what the function of those thermostats was.
Smart Home Technology is Potentially a New Vector for Domestic Abuse
The third part of Kodé’s article refers to a new dimension of Smart Home technology which is its use in domestic abuse.
The article mentions the following abusive or triggering activities that domestic abusers have used, capitalizing on the access through installing or administering Smart Home technology, before the domestic dispute began:
“Remotely turning up the heat on a smart thermostat on a searing hot summer day. Turning the lights off and on. Displaying daunting messages, such as ‘I’m watching you,’ on television screens. Playing offensive or triggering songs on smart speakers.”
All of this, including the suggestion to read The Wirecutter‘s 2018 article entitled How to Keep Your Smart-Home Technology Secure From Domestic Abusers is much more valuable than the discussion of failure by new home buyers to establish control of Smart Home technology during the closing.
Considering that New York State now has a law allowing Smart Home technology to be included in judicial orders of protection, I would strongly recommend that anyone seeking a protection order from a former domestic partner inventory the Smart Home devices in your home and provide that list to your attorney, so that it can be included in any order of protection that’s granted to you.
I would have preferred to see this article appear as two separate articles, rather than have the abuse of Smart Home technology in domestic disputes be relegated to the end of a piece like this.