The Sneaky Aspects of Technology are Quietly Transforming the Law and Your Privacy

The Sneaky Aspects of Technology are Quietly Transforming the Law and Your Privacy

For someone who came of age in an era of no internet or connected tech. I have, like most others I think, quickly and completely embraced the tech era of cell phones, Echo speakers, smart TVs and other connected devices. The time saving and information benefits offered by these devices are simply too enticing to ignore, and once you start to experience them, there really is no going back. Not to mention the increasing need for them simply to participate in our daily activities.

However, one thing that is also becoming increasingly clear is that vast amounts of data collected from these devices— including our phones, fitness trackers, smart refrigerators, thermostats and cars, among other connected tech. — are increasingly being creatively utilized in U.S. legal proceedings to prove or disprove claims by people involved and to disseminate personal information about you.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, a woman who claimed she was raped had her case dismissed after authorities collected data from the woman's Fitbit and found that it contradicted her version of her whereabouts during the alleged assault.

In Ohio man whose house caught fire claimed he was forced to escape through a window. However, his pacemaker data, obtained by police, showed otherwise, and he was charged with arson and insurance fraud.

In another recent case that made headlines, authorities in Arkansas are trying to obtain data from a murder suspect's Amazon Echo speaker to use as evidence against him.

Other instances where technology has intersected with the law in new and profound ways involve privacy. For instance, TV maker Vizio was fined by the US Federal Trade Commission in February when it was discovered that Vizio had been secretly gathering data on viewers it collected from its smart TVs and selling that information to marketers. Which, incidentally, is the entire business model for social media sites.

In another unusual case, last month the maker of a smartphone-connected sex toy called We-Vibe agreed to a court settlement of a class-action suit from buyers who claimed "highly intimate and sensitive data" was, without permission, uploaded to the cloud – which has been repeatedly shown to be vulnerable to hacking.

The seemingly overarching theme amongst these and other cases is that privacy, if not dead already, is certainly on the path to extinction. The expectation of privacy is radically different today than it was even a generation ago. Not only are we being constantly monitored and spied on, behind the scenes, but social media has seemingly transformed the human experience into one of publicly volunteering the formerly private details of their lives on a near daily basis.

The "always on" nature of the "internet of things" devices, coupled with our increasing dependence on social media, means huge amounts of personal information are constantly circulating among companies, the cloud and elsewhere, with very few standards or regulations on how this data is to be protected or used.

The danger in all this is that we are increasingly abdicating our personal privacy, autonomy and even human sovereignty to an omnipresent combination of corporate and government institutions in true neo-Orwellian fashion.

While this data collection can be highly beneficial, in law enforcement for instance, it remains ripe and low hanging fruit for abusive behavior and the law of unintended consequences, and the legal system must find ways to define limits for constitutional protections against unreasonable searches in the face of increasingly gray legal areas promoted by this technology.

The Amazon Echo speaker provides an interesting example of such challenges. We recently got one as a gift, and have quickly integrated it into our everyday lives.  “Alexa, add milk to the shopping list.”  “Alexa, wake me up at 5:30.” “Alexa, play some music.” We do all these things, and much more, every day, while never thinking about the fact that “Alexa” is also always on and always listening to our conversations, so she can always be ready when we call on her to do something.

Now, under the law, gathering any data from the Amazon Echo should face the same standard as wiretaps, meaning you need a warrant from a judge based on probable cause of a crime. After all, the Fourth Amendment provides a right of absolute privacy concerning conversations in our homes. But these conversations Alexa is recording may also be sent to the cloud per the terms of the user agreement we “sign” (but never read) to download the Alexa app. In that case, the data has now been voluntarily given to a "third party," which can erase your constitutional privacy protection. So now what?

The insidious nature of the new normal created by this technology has tremendous potential for privacy invasions, such that there must be effective jurisprudential and legislative means of addressing these issues. While the debate and tinkering over just how best to address this issue will continue for some time, we should all pay more attention to the way these connected devices in our homes will and do operate, so we can make the best decisions about how we conduct our lives. It’s not about having something to hide. It’s all about making sure that the things we do in our daily lives can’t be wrongfully manipulated against us in ways that ultimately make them worse. 


For someone who came of age in an era of no internet or connected tech. I have, like most others I think, quickly and completely embraced the tech era of cell phones, Echo speakers, smart TVs and other connected devices. The time saving and information benefits offered by these devices are simply too enticing to ignore, and once you start to experience them, there really is no going back. Not to mention the increasing need for them simply to participate in our daily activities.