Kennedy on Tech

Preparing for the 'Internet of things'

  • Print

In the early 1980s, programmers at Carnegie Mellon University connected a Coke machine to the ARPANET (later the Internet). Users could check the status of the machine and availability of products from their computers before walking to the machine.

It’s generally considered the first example of an Internet appliance, and the beginning of the “Internet of things.”

By 2008, the number of things connected to the Internet exceeded the number of people on Earth, with the number of connected things expected to reach 25 billion by 2015. “Things” include phones, tablets, thermostats, door locks, cameras, sensors, cows and polar bears.

The term Internet of things has been used to describe this phenomenon and the ability of machines to gather and process information, largely without human intervention, and make data available over the Internet.

While full home automation and refrigerators that sense when your milk is too old and order more get a lot of attention, it’s simple uses for individuals and industries that are where the action is now.

Consider this example: With the Good Night Lamp connected to the Internet, if you turn a light on in one location, another one will turn on in another location. At first, that might seem interesting only if you are a techie. But imagine that you have an elderly relative who lives a good distance from you. If the relative turns off the lamp when she goes to bed and turns it on when she gets up in the morning (or after taking medication)—signaling you that all is well—this device has a different usefulness.

Two major categories for such devices would be sensors and “doers.” Sensors monitor and acquire data to be sent back for processing without human involvement. Doers cause an action to happen when instructed by a sensor or a human over the Internet.

How will the Internet of things affect lawyers? There will certainly be questions of liability, although it is likely that many of those issues will be addressed by the evolution and extension of current liability approaches and legal principles.

The Internet of things also promises to create entirely new categories of potentially relevant evidence and possibly massive new sets of data. If you thought e-discovery of email was difficult, wait until lawyers need to find, assess and deal with data from all kinds of devices.


The Internet of things might also affect the day-to-day practice of law. Imagine important files or documents that can track and report their own location. Or energy costs that can be reduced by remotely checking your office, turning off lights, lowering thermostats and verifying that doors are locked.

Smart thermostats and other devices could help you save energy, while smart devices or supply room sensors might identify when new items need to be ordered and automatically generate an order form for approval.

You might even be able to have a set of devices that sense when you are close to your office and turn on your lights, computer and coffee machine so that you’ll have a freshly brewed cup ready as you reach your desk.

The Internet of things is a set of technology developments that will gradually and sometimes almost imperceptibly begin to affect us in the coming years. Any specific device or application might be small, but the combination of sensor devices and doer devices will create significant long-term changes that can both make our lives easier and add to the complexity of legal work. Keep an eye out for the Internet of things. It will be keeping an eye on you.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Webbed World: Preparing for the ‘Internet of things’.”


Print and initial Web versions of Dennis Kennedy's July column ("Webbed World") should have stated that Carnegie Mellon University programmers connected a Coke machine to the ARPANET (later the Internet) in the early 1980s, and not the World Wide Web.

The ABA Journal regrets the error.

Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based legal technology writer and information technology lawyer.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.