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Technology and the Law Series No. 4: Smart Homes

THE INTERNET OF THINGS

The much-heralded Internet of Things, or IoT, is not quite ready for prime time. The IoT is the inter-networking of physical devices, vehicles, buildings, and yes, homes, embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data. One of the many benefits of the IoT is the so-called Smart home, a home that allows a homeowner to control everything from the lighting to the entertainment system to the temperature.

However, one of the stumbling blocks of the IoT is the fragmentation of networks; the same is true of Smart homes. In order for a Smart home to be "smart," the devices (coffee pot, window shades, lights, garage doors, etc) must all be connected to a central hub, which is then controlled by the homeowner. The devices would be programmed to "talk" --collect information and data and relay it back--to and from this central hub and to each other. As of now, the technology for a workable central hub like this has yet to be developed. Apple's HomeKit has been disappointing; Amazon's Echo can control several smart devices and function as a home automation hub, but it is still limited in application and the devices with which it can interface; Google's GoogleHome is expected to launch October 4. This device will be close to the Echo in that it will be voice-activated and respond to questions and commands (working with Google Assistant), and will likely go further than Echo by being able to connect to more IoT home devices, but whether it will actually be the central hub envisioned to operate a Smart home remains to be seen.

SOCIAL AND CULTURAL OBSTACLES

But a Smart home needs more than the right technology to be smart. As of now, only 6% of American households have some form of a Smart home device, and most of these devices are probably light bulbs, thermostats and home security systems. Although this number is expected to increase to 15% by 2021, that modest pace is not indicative of any sort of Smart home revolution.

There are several reasons for the slow adoption of smart home devices. One big reason is that many of the devices are not essential; while it might be nice to have a refrigerator that alerts its owner when the milk is running low, it is not a necessary household item. Another big reason: cost. When the smart refrigerator costs thousands of dollars to alert its owner about the milk running low, it is not only an unnecessary household device, it is an unaffordable one for most people. A third big reason: the smart devices do not play well together. Even when people can and are willing to invest in Smart home technology and devices, an all-too common complaint is that they malfunction--a lot. In addition to frequent breakdowns, malfunctioning interconnected systems and devices can be very difficult to repair; it is not as simple as replacing a light bulb. All parts of the system must be reconnected and able to "talk" to each other and the home owner again. Even tougher, the system must adjust and reset after whatever caused the malfunction, whether it was a schedule change due to a vacation or daylight savings, an electrical outage due to a severe storm, or a device breaking down.

LEGAL IMPLICATIONS

The overwhelming legal issue regarding the IoT is privacy. After all, if simply shopping or banking online compromises a person's privacy, the amount of privacy lost when a whole home is literally wired for sound (and video) would be exponentially greater. Quantified living, also referred to as data-assisted living, means collecting a lot of data through wearables that track a person's heart rate and exercise, electric toothbrushes that can report on the health status of teeth, smart cups that detect toxins in water and smart refrigerators that record the nutritional value of the food inside. Although legislation can protect some of the data (HIPPA protects personal medical information), it would be naive to think that the massive amount of data collected would remain protected and private. Some of the information could be used for the public good, such as data for medical studies and for public safety purposes (think safe drinking water). But the level of intrusiveness could far exceed that of the NSA program leaked by Edward Snowden (see previous blog of September 22, 2016).

These concerns led the Federal Trade Commission to issue a report in January 2015 called "Careful Connections, Building Security in the IoT." The report stresses strict enforcement of existing federal laws that protect data, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Right to Financial Privacy Act, Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). However, new privacy legislation will be necessary to protect not only the inevitable breaches in systems, but the unauthorized uses to which the data collected could be put.

CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY

If you believe that the confidentiality of your data or personal information has been breached and that you have suffered as a result, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free evaluation of your legal rights.

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