Do smart devices threaten our privacy rights?

Smart devices, like phones, cars, appliances and automated assistants, can ease our daily lives - but are they costing us our privacy?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes that six years ago there were more items connected to the cloud than there were people on the planet. Everything from smartphones and cars to blenders and porch lights can be connected to the Internet. The advantages to these connections are seemingly endless. People can get notifications if their car is having a maintenance issue or have their furnace turn up the heat when they leave the office for the day.

Unfortunately, with every benefit comes a potential risk. Many of the risks that involve these devices center around privacy issues.

How can the Internet of Things pose privacy concerns?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is essentially the term used to describe the interplay between physical objects, like a car or smartphone, and the Internet. In many cases, the information gathered by these objects is stored in some manner.

The fact that this information is stored leads to the next question: when can this information be used against the owner of the device? Particularly when it comes to a criminal investigation?

The answer to this line of questions was recently tested in a case out of Arkansas. The case involves a group of men that gathered to watch a football game, have some beer and drink some vodka. At some point in the evening, one of the guests suffered a fatal accident, found the next morning face down in the homeowner's outdoor hot tub. Questions abounded on the cause of death. Police noticed that the homeowner had an Amazon Echo, a personal assistant type of device. The device is known to constantly listen for a trigger word before officially turning on. Even though the device is not always officially on, it appears that the device is recording happenings around it while waiting for that trigger word.

Police requested the recordings from the device and were denied. However, the homeowner had another smart device in the home, a smart water heater. This heater recorded its use, likely to help the owner manage water usage. Police were able to access this information from the water heater and found a large amount of water was used in the early hours of the morning. They used this evidence to support murder charges against the homeowner.

In this specific case, the homeowner recently chose to hand over the recordings from Amazon. As a result, it is unclear if the privacy of the recordings would have survived a full court challenge. The issue is a fairly novel one and will likely be discussed in future court cases.

Are steps taken to protect consumer's safety rights?

The FTC also addressed this issue in a recent publication, Internet of Things: Privacy and Security in a Connected World. The agency calls for those developing IoT products to include security measures in the initial design, not as an afterthought. It also encouraged businesses to ensure that they provide consumers with information about the type of data that is gathered with use of the device and to minimize the amount of data collected from consumers.

Ultimately, the agency calls for legislation to help address these matters. Such proposals have been made in recent years. Unfortunately, they have yet to take traction within Congress.

How could the IoTs impact criminal cases?

There are many potential implications to the criminal justice system, the most notable involving the use of the data as evidence as discussed above.

This potential use of technology against the owner provides an opportunity to remind those who are facing criminal charges of the fluid nature of the law. The law changes often and these changes can impact criminal charges. As such, those facing these charges are wise to seek legal counsel to help better ensure their rights are protected.