General Hardware Security

Do we even own things anymore? A Thought Experiment

SalesCFrom USA Today:

They’re “bricking” his device, making it an inanimate lump of circuitry that no more useful than a brick. Or, actually, less useful, since you can build things with bricks.They can do this because although you own the hardware, you don’t actually own the software in your devices; technically, when you buy the device, you just get a license to use the software.

Source: Glenn Reynolds: Do we even own things anymore?

This is a disturbing analog to the question I have been asking for years; Who Owns the Data?

Let’s do a thought experiment.

You have purchased an expensive $60,000 digital impression device for your office. The device needs software to work. Software to capture the impression, software to design a restoration and software to transfer the data to a lab or a mill. When you buy the machine the software is included right? Well technically no. You do not own the software you simply have a license to use it.

The new impression device is up to date and connects to the Internet. It is a proud member of the Internet of things. The Internet connection allows you, the user, to transfer impression data, to store the impressions in the cloud, automatically install software patches and updates, and it checks every time the machine is activated to be sure you are the licensed user. You pay a monthly fee for support.

If you choose not to pay the support fee can you still use your machine?

What if the company you bought the device from sells out to another bigger company? The bigger company decides they do not want to support the users of your device they want to move you to another device they already sell. The bigger company could simply stop supporting your device. With no upgrades, no support and possibly no cloud services you will eventually be forced to abandon your purchase and start over. They wouldn’t do that you say. Well that is exactly what happened over and over again with dental practice management systems in the 90s and early 2000s.

Or the bigger company could simply use the Internet of things connection to shut down your machine. Just stop the software from working, ever. They wouldn’t do that you say. Well Google, whose motto was “Don’t be evil” has just done it to users of a Nest product they bought up.

If a third party can make your machine useless do you really own that machine? What did you pay $60,000 for?

The Internet of things has amazing potential to increase productivity and improve the human condition. On the other hand there are serious security issues and the nagging problem of ownership that have not yet been thought through and addressed.

Perhaps the solution is a type of trust fund or escrow account that sellers set up and fund with proceeds from all sales to ensure continued use of a product for a specific time in the future. As a buyer you would consider such an arrangement as a condition of sale. If there is an escrow account you are more likely to buy and pay a bit more. No escrow account and you will be cautious and perhaps look elsewhere. However for such a system to work or even be offered, we as consumers need to be aware of the issue and then demand a solution as a condition of purchase.

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