What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things (IOT) is a growing area of IT and computing. Put simply, the IOT is the network of devices which are internet-enabled to allow them to communicate and share data, not just with human recipients, but with other devices in the IOT.

But what kind of devices? And what kind of data? The answers to those questions are not finite – in the future potentially every device we come in contact with could be connected to the IOT.

Already we have household appliances like fridges, wearables like FitBits and smart watches, drones, cars, and personal medical devices.

The use of the IOT could be as simple as a fridge which sends you a message or email to let you know when you run out of milk.

Alternatively, it could be as complex as a medication dispenser which provides pre-filled cups with the right dosage of multiple medications on different schedules, sends reminder messages to take the medication and when the machine needs refilling, contacts the user’s doctor when a prescription needs renewal, and communicates the user’s medication history with devices used to dispense medication in hospitals to prevent dangerous interactions.

And that’s only with the devices we have now. As more and more devices are connected to the IOT, interactions will only become more interwoven.

This introduces layers of legal issues, on both the consumer side and the production side.

For consumers, there are concerns around privacy, security, data protection, data ownership, and data storage.

For instance, if an employer gives their employees a FitBit to promote company health, who owns the data recorded by the device? The employer who paid for the device, the employee about whom the data relates, or even the company that developed the product? Could the information from the FitBit be sent by the employer to their group health insurance provider to calculate the employee’s premium?

On the production side there are multiple relations between device manufacturers, software developers, cloud storage providers, internet and communications providers, and others - which will all become increasingly intricate.

Where does liability start and end if things go wrong? Who owns intellectual property when different companies produce different parts which all combine?

One particularly important aspect in the production of devices connected to the IOT will be whether to develop them in a closed environment or an open one.

A fridge manufacturer could hire their own developers to create that milk sensing tech in a closed environment, or they could contract it out to a software development company in an open one.

Or even more open, they could follow the model smartphones have used and allow software developers to develop apps which work with their hardware and pay for them to be included in your new fridge – in which case your message to buy more milk might also include advertising from Fonterra or Foodstuffs.

Where there is a relationship, there should also be an agreement. Thus IT law is going to have to be able to manage the multitude of different relationships, while still being accessible to producers and users.

There is no telling what our devices will be capable of doing in the future, but IT law will need to keep up.

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