Why You May Not Really Own Your Gadgets

Retailers are making you activate gear

Key Takeaways

  • Home Depot is trialing a program that would require digital activation of tools before you can use them. 
  • The digital activation program raises the question of who owns items once you purchase them, experts say. 
  • The program also raises privacy implications, because it allows your data to be sold.
A construction worker using a laptop outside at dusk with a factory in the background.

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Buying gadgets may not mean you own them entirely. 

Home Depot is piloting a program that requires tools to be activated by Bluetooth before you can use them. The program is meant to deter theft, but experts say it’s a sign of the increasingly blurry definition of ownership in the digital age. 

"The bigger question is what downstream software update may turn the once-owned power drill into the newly leased power drill, which throttles features, functions, benefits, digital obsolescence, and your private data," David Forman, a vice president at cybersecurity firm Coalfire, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"This scenario introduces software and privacy-related concerns," he added. "For example, what if, through the terms of use, I am effectively leasing the power drill?"

Locking Up

The theft of power tools is a growing problem for retailers. To combat shoplifters, Home Depot is putting Bluetooth activation locks on the device rather than the packaging. If a thief nabs a tool, it won’t turn on without the proper digital activation. 

But the Bluetooth activation raises a host of practical and ethical questions. 

"Data can be used for targeted digital ads as well as for other nefarious purposes."

"The clerk is more or less transmitting a digital key to start the power drill one time, like a Windows installation," Forman said. "In that case, the concern isn't as much privacy as it is pure engineering in that it must be designed not to fail when it gets to the job site, i.e., if the digital key was somehow cleared, rendering the tool inoperable."

The activation program also raises privacy implications. 

"The initial concern any user should have is around the activation stage," Jamison Utter, a director at cybersecurity firm Ordr, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Assuming the Bluetooth connection is to an app on a user’s phone, details about where the product was purchased, along with data on utilization (when, where, how long) will now also be shared with the manufacturer."

The data gathered from the tool could be sold by Home Depot or the tool manufacturer to advertisers and further correlated with other data to form a consumer’s profile, Utter said. 

"This data can be used for targeted digital ads as well as for other nefarious purposes," he added. "Privacy is, without question, the final line of defense we have in consumer protection. The more data we allow to be shared, the more we are relinquishing our free will in purchasing."

Leasing vs Owning

James Thomas, founder of the tool review site, The Tool Square, said he’s concerned that digital activation raises the question of a consumer's actual ownership. 

Someone holding a drill, standing in the middle of a remodeling job.

Chris Carroll / Getty Images

"A product should be usable from the get-go, and using a digital activation also implies that it could be deactivated just as easily, which would be very frustrating as a user," he told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Digital activation isn't new, Forman pointed out. Smartphones have to be activated before use. Home thermostats and other home automation often require you to install an app and activate it. 

"I bought a Bluetooth weight scale, and for me to see how that last pizza added to my waistline, I had to install and register an app and review those privacy terms when activating it," Forman said. 

Forman said one difference with the Home Depot power tool activation program is that it is unlikely to have lengthy terms of service to read and sign when you need to pick up a belt sander quickly. Through the terms of use, you might be effectively leasing a power drill. 

"In this case, I'm now essentially turning the power tool into an IoT device, like your smartwatch or Fitbit," Forman said. "With that type of sophistication in my power drill, my problem may be that I can only drill a hole at 1000 rpm, but if I subscribe to the $10.00 a month service, I can now use the 2000 rpm drill speed or the hammer drill option."

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