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When Internet Connectivity Features Fail – is the Product Unsafe, or Just Not "Smart"?

Oct.17.2014


Recent Happenings in APRM
October 2014

Right now, as I type this article at my office desk, I could theoretically also adjust the temperature on my home thermostat, check my home security system, and watch a video feed to answer the pressing question of what my dog does while I am away. Admittedly, I don't yet have all the smart gadgets I've described, but they exist, and this extension of the internet to physical objects, or "Internet of Things," is continuing to expand to more users and more products. With the rise of interconnected devices, we have seen a corresponding rise in privacy and data sharing concerns. But what about more traditional safety issues? What happens when the smart feature of a product intended to make adjustments and monitoring easier and more accessible happens to fail? If the underlying product is still working—the "old-fashioned" aspect of the device that heats the home, sounds an alarm if the perimeter is breached, or beeps if the smoke detector battery has died—is the defect in the smart feature a mere quality concern, or might it be a safety concern?  Put differently, is there any difference between a traditional safety-related device, and a safety-related device whose interconnectivity features are disabled?

The answer is that in some cases, the failure of a device expected to be part of the Internet of Things may create a safety issue that would not exist if the device was never designed to achieve internet connectivity. We have already seen examples where the high tech aspects of a product made it susceptible to a failure mode that might not occur in a less sophisticated device. For instance, in May 2014 Nest issues a recall in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of its combination smoke/CO alarms because of the potential for nearby interference could cause the alarm not to sound in the event of a fire. Interestingly, the recall remedy could be implemented by an automatic electronic update to wireless devices. 

The Nest recall demonstrates the potential risks, and benefits, of a device whose proper functioning can be impacted by programming and internet activity. 

Likewise, one can envision a situation where a consumer's safety-related product might function properly in the home, but provide incorrect information via the internet. If a consumer relied upon internet information to determine if his or her in home alarm was working, for example, and the programming causes an incorrect positive or negative message, this might have safety implications even if the device continued to alarm properly for those physically present at the house. An incorrectly informed user might disable a perfectly functional device, under the misimpression it no longer worked, and then be vulnerable to events that could have been prevented. Alternatively, an incorrectly informed user might be lulled into a false sense of security about a device that in fact was not currently active, and fail to take timely measures to correct the situation. 

Makers and sellers of safety related products should consider this nexus between smart technology and the potential for safety concerns that may not previously have existed. If Internet of Things devices are treated merely as a traditional device, plus a separate and distinct technology add-on, potential failure modes and safety issues could be missed. Whether at the product design and development phase, or when monitoring customer service information for patterns of concern, consideration should be given to the interplay between the traditional and advanced features of a safety device, and how that interplay might results in new failure modes or potentially reportable safety issues.

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