Who Owns the Data in the Internet of Things?

Written By: David Wallace
  • 9/22/2015

Next time you’re stuck in traffic, try thinking about your car as a rolling Internet of Things data center filled with vehicle use and diagnostic details, route maps, real-time traffic, even your choice of music service or radio station.

So, who owns – or controls – the data? You, the owner? The manufacturer who integrated those onboard IoT systems? Or a maker of individual sensors and end-point devices? After all, that chip knows whether you wore a seatbelt or how long you’ve ignored a check engine light.

Issues of personal privacy, pro-active maintenance and ownership are colliding. One of the starting points has been cars and heavy trucks – devices that are more than the sum of their parts.

In the auto industry, after-market companies such as Dinan and Hennessey Performance now collaborate with original equipment manufacturers and dealers.

It wasn’t always the case. For years, “tuners” improved performance or added features but risked voiding an original warranty. Over time, Dinan’s BMW tweaks became so valued that some cars even qualified for the company’s Certified Pre-Owned inspection program. And new AMG-upgrade cars are now sold through Mercedes-Benz dealers – not just modified after purchase.

Devices-as-a-service could change the definitions of ownership, said Andrew Timm, vice president of technology platforms at PTC.

“For a farmer who doesn’t want to ‘own’ his tractor, he may be more interested in paying the manufacturer for the time he uses it. That could be a whole new market and business paradigm,” he said.

Consider added-value devices like Amazon’s Kindle tablet with a “mayday” button to contact live assistance or Jitterbug cell phones for seniors with built-in emergency or reminder features from GreatCall.

Those features can raise questions of whether the device is a product or a subscription service – with implications for repair, finance and sharing knowledge.

For example, a debate over auto repairs led independent mechanics in Oregon and Massachusetts to claim they were denied the necessary tools or knowledge from auto makers. They asked lawmakers to require open access to information, contending that some car owners paid higher repair prices for work that could only be completed at dealer-based service departments.

Since 2008, a “Right to Repair” campaign has asked for federal consumer protection for vehicle owners arguing that open standards are essential.

Are industry standards and conflicts over data coming to your company? Does data integration deliver a competitive advantage?

When IoT devices warn that repairs are needed, they save time and money, is the counterpoint from industry watchers. And no solution satisfies everyone.

In the world of electric refrigerators, freezers and restaurant equipment, a notification can warn before a major failure leads to breakdown – avoiding loss of sales and raw materials.

“A reactive service call costs three-times more compared to a pro-active call,” said Martin Flusberg, CEO of PowerHouse Dynamics, which has built a business in integrating sensor systems for food service.

“One of the things we hadn’t thought about is a customer who came to us and said food safety is a huge issue,” he added. “There are businesses that don’t have a facility manager so we can identify energy management (and preventive maintenance) as a value proposition.”

Adding features and value can create customer loyalty – some call it lock-in. When customers start using terms like ‘jailbreak’ to describe freeing a device from limits – the way Apple fans unlock iPhones – it may be time to look at both sides.

Image by Moyan Brenn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

  • CAD
  • Industrial Internet of Things

About the Author

David Wallace

A business, strategy and technology writer, David Wallace has contributed to The New York Times, Reuters and Wired among other news outlets. He is no fan of the Oxford Comma. He has taught news reporting at Emerson College and Boston University since 2004.