The pwnership of ownership

Your Canon cameras, HP printers, Amazon Kindles, and Ford cars are subject to their manufacturers' whims—even after you buy them
The pwnership of ownership
Illustration: Vicky Leta / Shutterstock

Hi Quartz members!

Do you really own what you own?

It used to be a simple enough question—until the era of modern technology, when our products started being laced with software that allowed manufacturers to keep controlling them. You may believe you own the device you’ve paid for, and that you hold in your hand; in reality, it turns out quite differently. As a notion, ownership has become tenuous—and contingent upon corporate greed.

Witness, for example, the despair of this owner of a Canon camera, who decided he wanted to use it for Zoom meetings, only to discover that that he couldn’t. Or rather, he could—if he paid Canon $50 a year as a subscription for additional software. Software that enabled the camera to, well, work like a camera.

Or consider Apple’s habit of “throttling” the performance of batteries in older iPhones. And if you don’t buy Apple’s accessories, your phone’s functionality might be reduced. The off-brand part you purchased might be identical to an official Apple product in every way. But if your phone does not believe it came from an official source, Apple will punish you for it.

The villain, in such cases, is Software as a Service, or SaaS, as it’s known in the industry. Increasingly, appliances and devices don’t come loaded with self-sufficient software. Instead, they connect to the internet and operate according to software hosted on their manufacturer’s server.

This SaaS model is replete with opportunities to wring more money out of customers: To use your device for so-and-so, buy this additional such-and-such license. And it gives manufacturers control over an object that you thought you owned, to tamper with it or to deprive you of it altogether. Possession suddenly feels like much less than nine-tenths of the law.


A short round-up of things you own-but-don’t-own:

👓 Until recently, the tech giant Meta forced you to link your Oculus headset and games library to an active Facebook account. If you were ever banned from Facebook, though, or if your account was deleted, your games library would vanish, and you would no longer be able to access your Oculus Quest 2. Things were even worse for owners of the original Quest, which went on sale before Meta decided to make Facebook accounts mandatory. People who had already purchased a Quest were told they had to connect an account or lose access to their devices.

🚗 Scene: an early winter morning in the English countryside. The squire leaves his manor and jumps into his BMW to drive to London, but his aristocratic rump remains cold all the way. He has forgotten to top up his subscription to BMW’s seat-heating program, starting at $19 a month. BMW foists similar plans on its customers in South Africa, Germany, and New Zealand. Cars are particularly prime products to squeeze for extra money. Tesla, for instance, announced last year that new customers must, after eight years, start paying for voice control, navigation, and other features.

📺 Samsung has the power to remotely “brick” any of its smart television sets, no matter how much you paid for them. While Samsung argues that this is only used to fight crime by bricking stolen TVs, this could, in theory, be used to render an innocent owner’s set unusable.

🖨️ HP’s remote bricking is its own gnarly thing. The company wants you to sign up for its Instant Ink program, so that, for a little monthly fee, you can get ink cartridges automatically delivered to you whenever your printer runs low. But that’s just a bait. Stop paying your monthly fee, and your ink cartridges immediately stop working, even if they’re full. Some reports also suggest that HP will brick your printer even if your credit card on file expires.

📖 Amazon shocked many Kindle users when, in 2012, it remotely wiped out every book from the library of one customer in Europe. The user was being punished for using her Kindle in Norway to buy content licensed in the UK. (Apple’s iBookstore has a similar policy.) In 2009, Amazon also remotely erased copies of George Orwell’s 1984 (hah!) from Kindles, claiming that the book had been mistakenly published. (This has also happened with other authors, including Ayn Rand—double hah!) And if you happen to own electronic copies of Roald Dahl books, they’re likely to be force-updated to reflect the bowdlerized changes announced by their publishers earlier this year.

🏍️ MOGO, a Kenyan motorcycle loan program, uses SaaS to lock motorbikes via their GPS if their buyers stop making payments. Even if 99% of the price has been paid, a motorcycle may be locked and repossessed. Kenya has seen plenty of scuffles between motorcycle owners and MOGO officials out to repossess their bikes. The owners accuse MOGO of being exploitative, and of taking advantage of their low economic status.

🏠 Perhaps a trash can should just be a trash can. In our Quartz Obsession podcast episode “Smart homes: Built to crash,” Quartz’s Julia Malleck discusses how SaaS models turn smart home devices from barely functioning junk to not-at-all-functioning junk if your subscription runs out.


In March, Ali Idd’s cell phone suddenly stopped working. Idd, an engineer in Nairobi, had subscribed to a cell phone plan from Safaricom, one of Kenya’s leading mobile providers. “I had not used the number for 11 months,” he told Quartz. “And when my sister sent me $20 through the mobile money transfer service M-Pesa, I could not retrieve the cash.”

It turned out that his mobile number had, in that interim, been put back on the market for sale—even though he hadn’t been warned in any way that this would happen. In a country like Kenya, with a robust mobile payments ecosystem, canceling a phone number can mean suspending access to the money in a mobile wallet. Safaricom usually deactivates sim cards that have not been in use for six months, regardless of the mobile money balance. Idd had to “repurchase” his number to get his cash out. “I was upset,” he said. “It took me three weeks to decide on paying for the same number and reclaiming it.”

His phone, at least, didn’t fall subject to Safaricom’s strictures. The company’s Lipa Mdogo Mdogo scheme—a Buy Now, Pay Later model—allows customers to take possession of a phone and pay for it in installments. Miss a single payment, though, and Safaricom locks your device, rendering it unusable.


In 2021, Ford applied for a patent that would enable vehicles to repossess themselves, in a way—to self-drive to a repo lot if their owners fail to make payments. The patent document (pdf), titled “Systems and Methods to Repossess a Vehicle,” claims that its systems can deactivate some functionalities of a car or truck, and additionally “move the vehicle from the premises of the owner to the premises of the repossession agency.”

It’s easy to visualize a scenario where this technology overreaches. What happens, for instance, during a wider shock to the economy? Car repossession is often a reliable indicator of an economic slowdown, and data does show, for example, that repossessions climbed in the US in the post-pandemic period. Cox Automotive estimates that there were 1.2 million repossessions in the US in 2022, up about 5.3% from 2021. Peak car repossession in the US—1.77 million cars—came in 2009, during the financial crisis. If, heaven forbid, the US goes through a giant recession or a depression again, Ford envisions that future as one where the roads are full of cars driving themselves away from their homes.

Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.

Own your weekend,

—Faustine Ngila, tech reporter