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The Internet of Things and the Law: What You Need to Know

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There’s a good chance you already use ‘Internet of Things’ (or, IoT) products in your everyday life. Maybe you have a Garmin running watch, a Nest thermostat, or an Amazon Echo. 

IoT technology is actually super interesting once you wrap your head around it, especially from a legal perspective. In fact, IoT devices present some fascinating issues for attorneys. As you focus on finding a law specialty, here’s how your expertise could come into play in the realm of IoT.  

What is the Internet of Things?

IoT describes devices that are connected to the internet and can be controlled or monitored by a mobile app. The idea behind IoT devices is that they are ‘smart’ — humans can control the devices remotely and the device can automate functions to make our lives easier. 

Let’s use the example of a ‘smart fridge.’ With a smart fridge, you can use an app to monitor what is in the fridge (e.g., when you’re at the grocery store and can’t remember if you have milk). But it can also do things like monitor expiration dates of food items and alert you when items expire or run out. In other words, they start performing functions that humans normally need to do. 

How is the Internet of Things evolving?

This technology doesn’t end with a singular device though. IoT also explains how all these devices can work together to automate workstreams, both in everyday life but also across manufacturing, managing cities, energy delivery and so much more. For example, imagine if your ‘smart car’ could figure out if you were running late for a meeting and then connect to your calendar and notify everyone in a meeting that you will be 20 minutes late. Or, if ‘smart thermostats’ could communicate with city sprinkler systems in community parks so they could more efficiently distribute water or signal them to turn off when it’s raining?

What are the top legal issues of the Internet of Things?

So, what does any of this have to do with the law? IoT raises some fascinating and challenging legal issues, especially as IoT devices become more sophisticated, interconnected, and widely adopted. Some of these issues include:

1. Security 

IoT presents some unique security issues for attorneys to consider. On the extreme end, what if someone hacked your ‘smart fridge’ and tried to kill you? But in all seriousness, IoT devices rely on software, and software can be hacked by outsiders. 

How you can make a difference: Attorneys can provide strategic and legal advice on how companies can prepare and respond to data breaches both with the consumers who use the devices and regulators. 

2. Data and Privacy

There are a ton of legal issues with websites collecting our data, and the same is the case with IoT devices. When you think about it, IoT has some pretty strong ‘Big Brother’ type vibes. How much do you want these devices, and the companies who create them, to know about you? 

How you can make a difference: Attorneys advise companies what their obligations are in terms of communicating to consumers about data being collected by IoT devices and how that data is being used. 

3. Competition and Antitrust

Companies that create many different types of IoT devices can have a competitive advantage against those with fewer devices. Let’s use Apple as an example: Consumers are more likely to buy a Macbook if they own an iPhone (compared to a Google Pixel) given they sync better together. The same goes for IoT devices. Companies need to be conscious that there are antitrust considerations at play with the increasing interconnectedness of IoT devices. 

How you can make a difference: Attorneys play a critical role in ensuring that companies comply with antitrust laws when it comes to the production and interconnectedness of IoT devices and will guide companies through any disputes with regulators. 

4. Liability

Let’s say you have a ‘smart thermostat’ in your house and it breaks and starts recording the wrong temperature. It might actually be a cold day, but the device is recording a high temperature that triggers the air conditioner. This failure causes high energy consumption and costs the consumer a lot of money. In a more serious circumstance, what if a smart self-driving car registers the wrong speed limit and starts speeding?. Who would be liable in that situation? 

How you can make a difference: Technology or commercial firms grapple regularly with questions over who is liable in a situation. When things get hairy and they end up as a dispute, that’s when litigation or dispute resolution attorneys step in.