Legal Patchwork Rules Internet of Things and Its Users

With smart gadgets already flooding the market and thousands more expected in coming years, the Internet of Things is emerging amid a regulatory wilderness.

The breakneck pace of this technology has far outpaced the legal system's ability to keep up with it, many experts contend. Because of legal loopholes, consumers often lack any right to control how long their data is kept, who it is shared with and what is collected about them, including such personal information as their finances, mental health, political leanings and sexual orientation.

And while ideas differ on what should be done about that, there is widespread agreement that it will be crucial to make sure the intimate details these devices gather on everyone won't be strewed willy-nilly across the Web.

"I grew up reading Huxley and Orwell, and I believe we all need to be sensitive to the possibility this could go very wrong," said Bryan Goff, a lawyer who has studied the legal issues surrounding the Internet of Things. While believing its innovations will provide innumerable benefits, he added, "this is a situation where change is going to happen -- there is no stopping it. Now it's a question of doing what we can to steer that change to the best outcome possible."

Some people are wary of government mandating new rules for smart devices. That includes Roger Atkinson, president of the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which is partly financed by businesses, including Google and Cisco Systems.

Because he believes gadget makers "have a lot of incentive to have a trusted relationship with the consumer," he favors letting the industry regulate itself, adding that "it's way, way too early" to be passing new laws for the Internet of Things. "Let's let it roll out a tad and keep track if anyone is abusing it."

Indeed, many people already...