Ohm & Kim on The Internet of Things

Paul Ohm (Georgetown University Law Center) and Nathaniel Kim have posted “Legacy Switches: A Proposal to Protect Privacy, Security, Competition, and the Environment from the Internet of Things” (Ohio State Law Journal, Forthcoming) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Internet of Things (IoT) promises us a life of automated convenience. Bright and shiny—if cheaply made and plasticky—“smart” thermostats, doorbells, cameras, and fridges carry out the functions once performed by “dumb” equivalents but in an automated, connected, and generally “better” way. This convenience comes at a significant cost. IoT devices listen to, record, and share our behavior, habits, speech, social interactions, and location minute-by-minute, 24/7. All of this information feeds a growing surveillance economy, as this data is bought, sold, and analyzed to predict our behavior, subject us to targeted advertising, and manipulate our actions. Many cheap IoT gadgets are developed on a shoestring budget, leaving them unsecure and vulnerable to attack. Malicious actors (and their automated computer programs) target IoT devices, breaking into them to spy on their owners or enlisting them into massive botnets used to cripple websites or critical infrastructure. These problems magnify over time, as IoT vendors focus on selling the next version of the device rather than on securing the preexisting installed base.

Consumers interested in protecting themselves from these harms may decide to replace outdated devices with newer, not-quite-yet-obsolete versions. Doing this does nothing to slow the growth of the surveillance economy and may even exacerbate it, as new devices tend to listen and record more than the models they replace. And even though replacing IoT devices can temporarily forestall security harms, asking consumers to replace all of their smart devices every few years introduces different harms. It harms the environment, filling our landfills with nonbiodegradable plastic housings and circuit parts which leach toxic materials into our air, soil, and water. It forces consumers to waste time, attention, and money tending to hard-wired, infrastructural devices that in the past would have lasted for decades. It compounds the harms of inequality, as those with more disposable income and connections to electricians and contractors have access to better security and privacy than those with less.

We propose a novel, simple, and concrete solution to address all of these problems. Every IoT device manufacturer should build a switch into their device called a “legacy switch.” When the consumer flips this switch, it should disable any smart feature that contributes to security or privacy risks. A legacy switch will render a smart thermostat just a thermostat and a smart doorbell just a doorbell. The switch will disable microphones, sensors, and wireless connectivity. Any user should find it easy to use and easy to verify whether the switch has been toggled.

This Article proposes legacy switches, elaborates key implementation details for any law requiring them, and connects them to the ongoing conversation about power, privacy, and platforms. The proposal to require legacy switches should be seen as a small but meaningful step toward taming the unchecked and destructive tendencies of the new networked economy.