Data Privacy in the Era of the Internet of Things

New smart home devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home are raising numerous legal and data privacy issues, primarily because these Internet of Things (IoT) are recording conversations that you have in your daily life. If you wouldn’t want your friend recording one of your conversations, would you want a digital device doing the same?

The Amazon Echo case

The one legal case that has people talking in 2017 involves the Amazon Echo, a voice-controlled digital device that sits passively in your home until it’s activated with your voice. This past holiday season, Internet of Things are the gifts most people want, and the Amazon Echo was one of the surprise hits of the season with consumers.

And now the Amazon Echo is at the center of a murder investigation in the United States, in which sounds recorded at home during an interaction with the device might provide some important clues to a bizarre murder case. In this case, a person invited some friends over to watch a football game at night and in the morning, there was a dead body in the backyard.

Prosecutors want access to the Amazon Echo data, confident that it can help to shed some light on the murder case. The thinking is that the Amazon Echo sensors might have activated and been in passive listening mode. If that’s the case, it might have recorded sounds of a fight or some argument.

The defendant, of course, is trying to block access to the device on privacy grounds. From this perspective, trying to get data from a smart home device like the Amazon Echo would be akin to getting data from a smart phone or a smart tablet. It’s a lot harder to obtain that data than you might think. Amazon, for its part, has refused to hand over any data in the investigation. From Amazon’s perspective, this is no different than an illegal wiretap case and an invasion of privacy.

And there’s one more wrinkle to this Amazon Echo case. The murder suspect also had a “smart” water meter hooked up to the house. So there was a second smart home object! Investigators now think that they can use data from this water meter to figure out if there was a spike in water activity in the middle of the night of the murder. That might give clues as to whether or not the suspect was using water to clean out the house and backyard of any blood or clues. As might be expected, the suspect is trying to block access to the data, also on privacy grounds.

New privacy cases involving the Internet of Things

You can think of this strange example as a test case for the Internet of Things and data privacy. We want our devices to be “smart” and “connected” – but we also don’t want them turning into “tattletales” that know too much about us. If you’re a teenager, for example, you don’t want your smart devices telling your parents that you were trying to access certain restricted websites. If you’re married, you don’t want your connected devices inadvertently telling your significant other about any potential infidelity. If you’re an office employee, you don’t want any smart devices telling your co-workers or bosses what you really think of them.

If anything, though, these types of test cases for data privacy rights will only become more frequent as more objects are built with networking and connectivity, to be hooked up to the Internet. Whether we like it or not, we are leaving behind a data trail every time we connect with these devices. Our smart refrigerators know if we’ve been cheating on our diets, and our smart fitness bands know if we’ve been following our workout schedules. That data is then shared to the cloud, where it is vulnerable to hackers.


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