Subscriptions and Increasingly Intangible Intangibles: Where Does it Stop?

Without wanting to say too much about my age, I was part of the first generation to play computer games as kids. Yeah [says the guys adopting his Grandpa Simpson voice]: Back then, you bought it and could keep playing it ad nauseam, which included table-top games like Monopoly and console games like Pacman on my Atari 2600.

Well, the least one can say is that those days are gone… far gone. In today’s world, the way software and media are increasingly packaged basically did away not only with physical copies but with perpetual licenses altogether, rather turning everything into a something “as a service”.

You want a movie? Blockbuster’s gone, so are most DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, as most everyone turned to the likes of Netflix to watch movies and tv shows. Streaming is now the standard way to go about it. Heck, a friend was recently telling me Disney recently decided to do away with one of their stapes and stop selling copies of their movies on DVDs and the like. From now on (or soon anyway), you want to watch a Disney flick, you catch it in theaters or you stream it on Disney+. That’s it.

I think this speaks volumes about what’s been going on with media over the past 20 years or so. With the advent of the Internet, we collectively realized that no one needs to own… anything, really.

in today’s world, that even extends to software, of course. With quite a few companies discontinuing their apps and desktop software, rather opting to provide an equivalent that you can use through a browser, for example, the very concept of buying something that you control, call your own and can decide to keep around (or not) is quickly disappearing, software-wise anyway.

Of course, once you no longer own it, the producer of software can modify it at will, or even discontinue certain whole functionalities, at which point there’s fairly little you can really do about it. You really liked that cross-cell funky calculation function in that online application? Well, too bad, the producer elected to discontinue it, starting… oh yeah… yesterday. Don’t like it? Too bad for you.

Recently, I even saw this pushed one step further, when I realized a computer I was under the impression I had purchased (ah ah, fool) simply essentially disappeared overnight from STEAM, the widely used gaming platform. Yup, the game editor decided to pull that particular title and, of yeah, the effect was to essentially prevent those who had “purchased” it (or rather thought they did) to access or use it any longer. You liked that game? Too bad, it’s gone.

Heck, I’ve even read about certain car manufacturers abroad “innovating” (see those quotes?), by charging car “buyers” (see em’ again?) a monthly fee for the benefit of certain functionalities in their new vehicles, such as heated seats for $18 a month, etc. Yeah, seems in today’s world, businesses all want in on that subscription model. It’s just too good to pass on, it seems. Anyway, I don’t pretend telling anyone anything about this they didn’t already know. Just slightly amusing (if not outright tragic) to realize this is happening and that there precious little you and I can do about it. It’s just, as they say, the way it goes.

And Just Who Really Controls that New Shiny Connected Device of Yours?

With a little help from a friend, I happened on 3 different stories in the news this week and that all relate, to some degree or another, to connected devices, including IoT devices and vehicles. If you ask me, it’s hard not to conclude that these 3 stories aren’t symptomatic of a trend. See for yourself:

The first story from this article relates to BMW, in South Korea, that now offers drivers access to certain functionalities installed in their new cars subject to the payment of subscription fees. The article mentions as an example heated seats which may only be used once the user agrees to fork over monthly fees. Failing this, BMW deactivates (or does not activate) the functionality remotely, so that, even though the vehicle technically includes it, it is inoperable. You read this right: you buy the car but not everything works off the bat, until you agree to pay monthly fees, in addition to your purchase price. After all, you just paid $80,000 for that car, what’s $20 per month?

The second story on that theme comes from this article  and relates to JOHN DEERE tractors. As you may have read recently, with the war in Ukraine, Russian forces are not only destroying things but also looting, including production and property found on farms. This happened to a bunch of tractors (a couple of millions dollars worth, apparently) which the Russians “confiscated” and quickly sent back to Russia as spoils of war. Unfortunately for them, once the tractors made it to their new home, Russian forces realized the machines has been (remotely) deactivated by the manufacturer, after they were reported stolen. As Russia just learned, it today’s world, yup, even farm equipment is connected, big time.

I happened on the third story through this article which deals with one of Amazon’s subsidiary admitting, this week, that it sometimes provides police with images from RING cameras (installed at customers’), without either consent from those owners or any warrants. Given this is done to help maintain order and ensure safety in our communities, why bother with such trivialities, right?

All three cases are symptoms of the control that manufacturers of connected devices and equipment do retain nowadays. This may be used for good or ill, but the bottom line is that we, as buyers of technology, can no longer assume we will retain control over OUR things, not total control anyway. In the age of the Internet of Things, the truth of the matter is that control will often rest elsewhere, something that can be so even though we may have bought a thing outright.

Next time you buy something that is connected, do ask yourself (and whoever’s selling it to you) to what extent the manufacturer may interact with it remotely, not only to update its firmware but also to disable it or do other things. The answer may surprise you.

Eh Dude, Your Car’s Leaking. No, Not Oil: Data

The online magazine The Intercept recently published an interesting piece entitled YOUR CAR IS SPYING ON YOU, AND A CBP CONTRACT SHOWS THE RISKS which I highly recommend. If you didn’t know it, yes, your car does generate a lot of data and even downloads some of it from mobile devices which connect to it over time. In a sense, nowadays, a car is a sort of mobile computer, shock full of data. What may not be apparent to the layperson is that a car in this day and age generates and retains A LOT of data pretty much any time a human interacts with it.

Though the article at issue focuses on the use of your vehicle’s data by law enforcement (when investigating crime), if you ask me, the true story actually goes quite beyond that, including the use of such data by private businesses.

Surprisingly, accessing the data held by a modern-day vehicle isn’t actually this complicated—you just need the know-how and the right tool. If you’re really determined to do so, plugging into a car these days and extracting troves of data is apparently pretty straightforward. For example, in case of accident or other incident with an insured vehicle, the insurer may send an investigator armed with the right tools to download the car’s data, which can then be analyzed at leisure, including to try and find out why the insured’s claim should be denied. Almost any car on the road today includes such capabilities and functionalities akin to a plane’s black box.

The article specifically discusses one particular tool called iVe, a product by a company called Berla. The iVe toolbox includes both hardware and software components, and even has its own mobile app, so as to make things easier for investigators in the field.

This particular tool may be used to siphon all data contained in a vehicle’s circuits, for example to further an investigation either by the police or an insurer. The product then facilitates identifying, accessing and analyzing various types of information found in modern-day vehicles—you’d be surprised how much there may be. The company’s website claims its product can be used to uncover things like:

  • Geolocation data, including what roads or streets the vehicle was driven on, etc.;
  • Events which the vehicle encountered and recorded through any of its sensors;
  • Media files (content) that a user downloaded or accessed using the on-board infotainment system (music, podcasts, etc.);
  • A list of the specific mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle over time, etc.

In practice, it seems one may even go so far as to obtain a copy of the list of contacts from mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle, the history of SMS and emails on those devices, the list of incoming and outgoing calls, the list of songs played through the on-board infotainment system, etc.

Incident which a car records may, of course, include accident-like events, but also things that the average driver may not realize are being recorded, including:

  • The speed at which the car is travelling at any given moment;
  • The changing of gears and the engine’s RPMs at any given moment;
  • Sudden acceleration or breaking;
  • The fact that the headlights were either turned on or off;
  • The opening or closing of doors; etc.

So, you were listing to PARANOID by Black Sabbath and texting your friend Mike while driving down this country road at 163 km/h, and then lost control? Yeah, your insurer can find out, for sure. In fact, almost any action taken by the human operator of the vehicle may be recorded (even more so if you plugged in your cellphone), something the average driver may not realize. The fact that this is generally not clearly disclosed to the public does play into the hands of insurers and law enforcement, as it does make their job somewhat easier when investigating incidents involving vehicles.

If it may provide some measure of comfort to you, iVe does not come cheap. The article to which we’re linking above mentions purchasing that tool for tens of thousands of dollars. At that price, your insurer (or its investigator) probably bought one, but not your next-door neighbour, even if he’s really into cars.

This is a good example of the behind-the-scene changes turning everyday objects, like cars, into electronic gizmos. If you thought a car was still just a car, you are very much mistaken it seems. In today’s world, accessing the data in that car can reveal a whole lot about you, your driving habits, including where you’ve taken that car, and how. And contrary to what some people may think, it does NOT require a whole team of CSI-like investigators merely to connect to your car.