GPS Repossessions

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Dec 10, 2008, 12:39:26 AM12/10/08
to Design and Behaviour
From my blog. Of possible interest to this group.

A recent Computerworld blog post shows how tone deaf we can be about
the implications of new technology. A group of car dealers in Oregon
apparently attached GPS devices to cars sold to customers with poor
credit so as to be able to track them down more easily in the event of

I agree with the author, a senior editor for Computerworld, that there
are (horrendous) privacy problems with tracking customers without
notice. But this practice also relates to an emerging phenomenon
wherein sold property remains oddly connected to the seller as though
it were merely leased. Whereas once we purchased an album and did with
it as we please, today we need to register (up to five) devices in
order to play our songs. Whereas once we purchased software outright,
now we depend on periodic vendor updates in order to retain basic
functionality. (See John's discussion of "software as service" in The
Future of the Internet and How To Stop It.)

Notice that although the blogger faults certain dealers for failing to
inform customers of the device, no critique is offered of the notion
that the dealers should retain a “location” interest in the vehicle
after it has been lawfully sold to the consumer. Rather, the author
says of this practice that it “sounds like a reasonable thing for the
car dealers to do,” and later that dealers may have a “very good
business rationale” for the practice. I disagree with this position.
Once you sell me a car, it's mine, until the law provides otherwise.

Rosie H

Dec 10, 2008, 9:14:06 AM12/10/08
to Design and Behaviour
wow this puts a whole new slant on product-service-systems, a current
(and popular) sustainability methodology whereby people are weaned off
the concept of owning products, instead they lease them off the
manufacturer who is then responsible for take-back, repair, recycling
or disposal. So in that scenario it's quite likely that a
manufacturer will want to keep tabs on their equipment/material, will
this bring up privacy issues or is it simply the case that if it's
done overtly (and not in the negative frame of potential repossesion),
the customer knows about it and agrees, it's ok? Or will it be a long
time before people can overcome the perceived encroachment on their
liberty that not owning might bring?



Dec 10, 2008, 4:09:49 PM12/10/08
to Design and Behaviour
You know, I have not looked at product-service-systems in the context
of sustainability. Thanks for this lead. I see how the arrangement
you described could be a real plus. I do think it will be a long time
before people give up the notion of alienable property in favor of
leasing, regardless of the benefits (or harms).

The cyberlaw community worries about the product as service phenomenon
for several reasons, but perhaps most directly in the context of
digital rights management. The concern is that digital objects can be
locked down by their creators and copyright owners, in turn
restricting the purchasers ability to share, modify, or otherwise riff
on content even in lawful ways (i.e., as "fair use"). Zittrain takes
this thought further and discusses the possibility of detrimental post-
purchase control, citing as an example a court order requiring a cable
box company to neutralize its DVR function remotely due to a patent
dispute. (The case was eventually settled, I think.) Such a post-
purchase remedy would not have been possible with a DVD player that is
not tethered to its manufacturer.

There are also potential privacy harms where, as often, information
about the equipment (where its been, how it was used) will lend
insight into the owner/lessee. This is true of everything from GPS
enabled cars, to handheld computers, to refrigerators that notice that
you've been buying more milk... The question is whether the consumer
does/can trust the third-party responsible for maintenance and
disposal, whether she was afforded sufficient upfront notice, etc.
One important consideration is that the state can get at virtually any
information that is gathered and held by third parties with sufficient
process. Think for instance of how law enforcement uses information
about energy consumption patterns to determine whether someone is
growing or making drugs.

Dan Lockton

Dec 10, 2008, 5:28:04 PM12/10/08
I wonder whether there will come a stage where the markets for "products you own" and "product-service systems you lease" become clearly differentiated across lots of sectors? So just as at present, if you're a small business you might decide to buy a photocopier (for example) outright, but if you're a larger business you might decide to rent one (along with the service contract etc), this might become common for lots of classes of product?

Will people be happy to pay more for devices which they actually own and can modify, and which don't track them or send usage data back to the provider, versus 'service' rental where you're maybe guaranteed a particular function and level of reliability (and take-back & recycling/refurbishment at the end of life) in return for having everything you do recorded and tracked? Will it become a status symbol to own your own cooker, for example, as opposed to renting it? Will an aftermarket conversion/customisation culture develop for people who do own their devices and so are free to modify them how they like? Will it be assumed that anyone who chooses to own products outright must have something to hide?

One important consideration is that the state can get at virtually any
information that is gathered and held by third parties with sufficient
process.  Think for instance of how law enforcement uses information
about energy consumption patterns to determine whether someone is
growing or making drugs.

This is a really interesting point. Scott Craver wrote about the 'privacy ceiling' - and the long-term liability that companies could expose themselves to just by being able to collect data in the first place - if a manufacturer's products are able to collect usage information which might be of interest to the authorities in some way, is it the manufacturer's duty to do that collection properly?

The product-service system idea as Rosie mentioned of course raises the possibility of products which 'expire' when your 'lease' ends - and that lease could just be financially driven (as with time-limited software licences or DRM) but it could also be environmentally driven - when you've used your weekly quota of water, your dishwasher stops working. Consumers won't like this, but is it really too different to pre-pay electricity meters?

The idea of 'optimum lifetimes' for certain products comes in here. There are some classes of energy-using product where either due to technology improvements since it was made, or deteriorating efficiency over years of use, it's actually more environmentally friendly to replace the product with a new one rather than continue using the old one. Ann Chalkley (whose Brunel PhD thesis is frustratingly not online) investigated this extensively for different kinds of product - from what I remember, washing machines and fridges had optimum lifetimes around 5-8 years while cars were about 10. Vacuum cleaners, which have been getting more powerful without major efficiency improvements, had an infinite optimum lifetime based on current trends, i.e. it was, on average, better to keep using an old one than buy a new one. (I wrote about this a bit here back in 2005 - )

So a product of service could monitor when its 'optimum lifetime' is reached (maybe in terms of hours of use, or power used during lifetime) and simply switch itself off, signal the manufacturer that you need a replacement, and so on. Whether consumers would like this is another matter...


2008/12/10 Ryan <>


Dec 18, 2008, 3:02:14 PM12/18/08
to Design and Behaviour
FYI. Ars Technica just ran a story on the resale of digital objects.

Sebastian Deterding

Dec 20, 2008, 11:02:08 AM12/20/08
to Design and Behaviour
To me, the bottom line of this is that the Internet of Things/Ubicomp
is bound to carry over all those DRM and "code is law" problems into
the physical world.

The point of sale was once a point of (comforting) closure: Once it
was mine, no one else hat the right or ability to control it or
collect knowledge about it.
As goods were physical objects and nothing else, whoever possessed
them (i.e. physically held them in their hands) and owned them (i.e.
possessed them in a legitimate manner) severed all ties of control and

Now, with goods becoming goods with services attached, or leased goods
etc., and these attachments becoming automated and digitized for
supposedly greater ease of use (instead of having to dive into my
glove compartment, unearth that signed policy, look up the phone
number and call my automobile club when my car broke down, and then
personally approve with that aged piece of paper to the service man
that yes, I am eligible, the car and the database and his personal
information device all tied together via the internet do this
automatically) -- now all the weird questions of remote control and
communication come up again.

What will be the practical solution of choice for this? Will we have
to wade through privacy ingredients for every imaginable purchased
good like the good health-concerned customer would have to wade
through the list of ingredients with every grocery? Will every product
come with an RFID tag that pops up an interface on our web device of
choice where we have to wade through endless checkboxes of who is
allowed to send and receive which information, just like the privacy
controls in social networks? Will goods cary badges crying "0% privacy
intrusion!", "low on data leakage!" like they cry "no sodium" and "low
cholesterol"? Imagine the additional daily amount of choice stress

Deeply intertwingled,


Jan 8, 2009, 5:23:24 PM1/8/09
to Design and Behaviour
Another article on digital objects (here, books) disappearing after
sale. This relates directly to John Zittrain's point about software
as service and perfect enforcement in his book The Future of the
Internet (and How to Stop It).
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