Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Does the Internet of Things mean we’ll never be left to our own devices?

Liz Coll, Digital Policy Expert, introduces and outlines consumer concerns around the Internet of Things in light of Consumers International's latest report.

Nest’s announcement last month that it would no longer support Revolv’s smart home controller may not have topped many consumer’s concerns, but it clearly demonstrates the kinds of detriment that look set to arise from the Internet of Things

Revolv (acquired by Google’s Nest in 2014) let people connect and control all of the smart switches, security devices, sensors, and heating in their home. This week it will be switched off, so the hardware will no longer function. The Revolv customer (and ‘lifetime’ subscription holder) who first drew attention to this in a blog, sums up the impact of its closure on him: 

 “My house will stop working. My landscape lighting will stop turning on and off, my security lights will stop reacting to motion, and my home made vacation burglar deterrent will stop working. This is a conscious intentional decision by Google/Nest.”

Consumers who bought the product with a lifetime subscription were left wondering whether they would have any rights to refunds, or replacements or what would happen with its data? Since the user outcry, there been a change of heart, and now refunds will be issued for the hub purchase price. 

But is pulling the plug on owned devices a one off, an inconvenient by-product of fast moving technology, or could this be a worrying indication of a potential future for the Internet of Things? We may see a future where device functionality is more and more dependent on remote decisions with little input from owners, and where large companies definition of a product ‘lifetime’ prevails. 

The future’s here

With estimates that, already, 25 billion devices are connected to the Internet of Things – a figure that’s set to double by 2020 -  connected devices now outnumber people by nearly  4 to 1. 

No longer a futuristic concept, the Internet of Things is becoming embedded in everyday life - along with some patterns that may cause alarm for consumers. It’s not just about devices and appliances at the luxury end of the market (such as talking fridges), Consumer International’s (CI) latest research with Members in Kenya, the Philippines and Nigeria discovered that smart systems and products are connecting and collecting data on users and services across all walks of life, including healthcare and public transportation.  

Of course, consumers could stand to benefit in many ways, as more devices across more sectors share usage information and learning. Think of the convenience of a smart car whose tyre sensors detect the precise time at which you need a replacement; the peace of mind of a smart home security system, or items tagged with location sensors; the ease of using a connected transit system across a busy city; or an energy home system that learns and adjusts to your preferences and habits.

The erosion of ownership

So far the capacity of these devices to collect detailed, time sensitive and often personal data and share it with other devices or remote hubs has been the subject of much attention and discussion about privacy. Security is also a huge concern, with much larger surface area meaning increased vulnerability.  

But the implications go much further than this and could, as in the case of Revolv’s smart home kit, suggest a world where the normal expectations of what we can do, and for how long, with things we have purchased are turned on their head.  

Our new report calls this the ‘erosion of ownership’ which could come about as tangible objects take on digital properties by way of the software embedded into them. We expect to see more hybrid products emerging where the part of the product containing software is licenced via contract while the device itself is owned. In such cases, will operation of the device be subject to contract terms which can put unexpected limitations on how the product is used - or in Revolv’s case, if it can actually be used at all? There are even fears that we may start to see the type of remote automated contract enforcement recognisable from digital rights management, where technical blocks are put on to limit particular uses and prevent unauthorised use, repair or plug-ins.

Upholding rights for the future

How easy will it be for consumers to understand or uphold their rights, or attempt to uphold them given such complex lines of responsibility? Or where there is confusion over exactly what a consumer can or can’t do with a product they have purchased? 

We know laws find it hard to keep up with technological developments, and that as products and companies cut across not only sectors but national jurisdictions, that regulation and enforcement of consumer rights is challenging. Additionally, we cannot rely on competition to provide for checks and balances as a small number of companies dominate, and provider lock- in is already evident in the infancy of the Internet of Things.  

To make sure that we really can be left to our own devices if we prefer, consumer protection and concepts of proportionality, fair use and fair processes, must be put at the centre of discussions on the Internet of Things development and delivery. 

What’s more, to move beyond protection and into a scenario where consumers can gain insight and convenience from connected devices on their own terms, services and products should be designed with consumer trust and controls built in, with easy ways to hold companies who overstep the mark to account.

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