Do you really "own" your smart devices?

How personal property is changing in our Internet-of-thingsy world.
Sonos recently told users they would have to provide more personal information in order to continue receiving software and firmware updates. (Courtesy Sonos, Inc.)

More and more of us are buying smart, "internet of things" devices for our homes.

From thermostats to toasters to Google Home or Amazon Echo, we've come to depend on internet-connected devices to navigate our increasingly complex lives.

But that creates an interesting question: even though we may have bought them in a store and they physically sit in our home, how much control do we have over their use?

Take the recent declaration by Sonos, the company that makes high-end, networked, smart speakers. Many people have invested thousands of dollars in them, and use them to stream their music and television in super-high-fidelity around the house. And owners depend on regular firmware and software upgrades to ensure their speakers remain secure and compatible with the latest innovations - not unlike when your phone's operating system is updated.

But Sonos recently changed its privacy policy, asking owners to consent to share more personal data with the company. And if owners refuse to share this data, they will be denied future updates, to the point where the speakers may even stop working.
Stacey Higginbotham

Many in the tech community, like Stacey Higginbotham, the editor and creator of the IoT podcast, found the move surprising. "I totally get the aggravation that people feel."

But she adds that Sonos likely needs the information it's asking for in order to keep its products compatible with others - the next generation of speakers will, for example, work with voice-activated commands and work with Alexa.

The Sonos example, and several other similar cases, all boil down to how we define "ownership," says Aaron Perzanowski, an author and  law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

"The line between 'products' and 'services' has become incredibly blurry," he says. "In the past if you bought a car, or a toaster, and something went wrong with it, you could fix it yourself. Now, with the role that embedded software plays, that 'right-to-repair' is at stake."
Aaron Perzanowski

Companies that make those products want to be in control of the repair. "Because these devices are so much more dependent on being networked and their software, we have to concede that we have less control over how we own them, Aaron adds.

But in exchange for that we know that the products will be regularly updated and kept to the technological standards we've come to expect.

"Some loss of control is, if not necessary, is at the very least, highly likely," he says.

"We need to figure out a way of identifying the crucial aspects of ownership and making sure that consumers at least have a choice."