LAW AND TECHNOLOGY: The Rise of the Internet of Things and its Legal Implications

Last year, I bought my dad light bulbs for Christmas. These were not just any light bulbs. As my dad would be quick to show you, he can now turn off the lights by simply saying, “Good night Siri.” My parents’ house is full of gadgets like this. I can unlock the front door by using my phone. On a recent visit to New York, my dad opened the garage door for my brother from over a thousand miles away. Devices like these are part of an ever-expanding market that has been named the “Internet of Things” (IoT). So, what exactly is the Internet of Things?

“The Term the “Internet of Things” (IoT) refers to the inter-networking of a wide variety of objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity that enables these objects to generate, collect, and exchange data.”[1] Essentially, while each object is its own entity, these objects are capable of working together and exchanging data through the internet. This interconnectivity allows objects, like my dad’s lights, to be controlled remotely using the internet.

The IoT is a vast market, and as technology progresses, the IoT becomes more integrated into our everyday lives. While you may not have lights that you can turn off with your phone, you are likely surrounded by other devices that are part of the Internet of Things. Wearable technology, like an Apple Watch or a Fitbit, are constantly collecting data about your exercise habits, how far you walk, and your heart rate. Nest, a smart thermostat, collects information about your energy usage. Most new vehicles have sensors that alert drivers if they have drifted out of their lane or are too close to the vehicle in front of them. These examples are just the tip of the technological iceberg. Simply stated, if a device has a sensor and a connection to the internet, it is likely collecting and sending data to its manufacturer about how the product is being used.

How has the Internet of Things impacted litigation?

Perhaps the most immediate (and widely debated) impact of the IoT on litigation occurred in a criminal case in Arkansas. In 2015, James Bates was charged with the murder of his friend Victor Collins, after Mr. Collins’ body was found in Mr. Bates’ hot tub.[2] The night before, the men had been drinking and watching football. After a witness stated that music had been playing via Bates’ Amazon Echo, prosecutors served Amazon with a subpoena requesting the data recorded that night. Amazon refused to turn over the data, stating that the request was overbroad and cited First Amendment and privacy issues.

According to Amazon, the Echo is constantly listening for a “wake word.”[3] Whenever the Echo hears the “Alexa” or “Amazon,” the device automatically starts recording your voice. This recording is immediately sent to a processor for analysis in order for Alexa to answer the question that it has been asked. This recording is saved by Amazon and can be reviewed or deleted over time.

Unfortunately for the legal community, the court never had the chance to decide the issue, as Mr. Bates eventually gave Amazon permission to share the records with the prosecutors. However, the case brought to light the myriad of possible legal repercussions arising from the IoT that the legal community has been vigorously debating ever since.

To put these issues into perspective, consider the Fitbit. At its most basic level, a Fitbit is a wearable wristband that tracks the wearer’s activity levels, heart rate, number of steps taken, calories burned, and sleep patterns. The more expensive models add even more features, like GPS and ovulation tracking. With the massive amount of data that the device is capable of capturing, many possible legal issues arise.

As to litigation, the admissibility of Fitbit records has already impacted criminal law. On December 23, 2015, Connie Dabate was murdered in her Connecticut home.[4] Her husband claimed that he had been attacked by a masked intruder and that his wife had been shot by the intruder when she arrived home from her yoga class. However, when detectives subpoenaed Connie’s Fitbit records, they discovered that she had been home for about 45 minutes before she was killed and had walked much farther at that location than was plausible from her husband’s account of the events. Based on these inconsistencies (and other evidence), detectives arrested Mr. Dabate and charged him with the murder of his wife.

The Fitbit is only one example of how the Internet of Things has the potential to drastically change the legal landscape. The admissibility of IoT records could also change how discovery and depositions are conducted in civil litigation, especially in personal injury and products liability cases. For example, in a personal injury action a plaintiff could claim that before the accident they ran marathons several times a year and now they are unable to run a mile.[5] With access to the data a Fitbit or an Apple Watch can provide, attorneys could get a much clearer picture of the plaintiff’s exercise habits, and therefore a much more accurate estimate of the available damages. By requesting virtual assistant records (like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri), litigators could learn everything from a party’s daily habits to any recent vacation plans. With these types of records, the civil damages awarded to a party could be much more accurate.

These examples encompass a very small part of the possible impact of the Internet of Things. As technology progresses, more devices will become “smart” and more data will become available. With the inevitable increase of legal questions resulting from the Internet of Things, courts and the legal community will need to rapidly determine what changes need to be made to civil and criminal proceedings to ensure that individual privacy rights are respected.*

*The information in this article is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Rozario & Associates, P.C. or the individual author(s), nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this article without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from an attorney licensed in the recipient’s state. For assistance with intellectual property and cyber law matters, please contact our office at info@rozariolaw.com. 

 

[1] Ronald J. Hedges & Kevin F. Ryan, The Iot: What Is It, What Can Happen With It, and What Can Be Done When Something Happens, New York State Bar Association Journal, March/April 2018, at 30.
[2] Eliott C. McLaughlin, Suspect OKs Amazon to hand over Echo recordings in murder case, CNN (Apr. 26, 2017), https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/07/tech/amazon-echo-alexa-bentonville-arkansas-murder-case/index.html.
[3] Nicole Chavez, Arkansas judge drops murder charge in Amazon Echo case, CNN, (Dec. 2, 2017), https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/30/us/amazon-echo-arkansas-murder-case-dismissed/index.html.
[4] Amanda Watts, Cops use murdered woman’s Fitbit to charge her husband, CNN (Apr. 26, 2017), https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/25/us/fitbit-womans-death-investigation-trnd/index.html.
[5] Robert D. Lang and Lenore E. Benessere, Alexa, Siri, Bixby, Google’s Assistant, and Cortana Testifying in Court: Novel Use of Emerging Technology in Litigation, New York State Bar Association Journal, November/December 2017, at 11.

1 Comment

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Heather LaPolloreply
April 29 at 05:04 PM

Very interesting and informative, and well written. I look forward to learning more as the IoT continues to change law and law practice.

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