High tech/high debt: the feudal future of technology makes us all into lesser lessors

Sarah Jeong continues her excellent series of critical perspectives on technology with a piece on the way that technology is being used to let computers control their users, on behalf of the corporations who make and sell these tools.

The expansion of DRM into the basic operating systems of computers, the ignition switches on cars, thermostats, medical implants and everything else that can run software has made a mockery of the basic idea of owning property. Since everything you own is now "smart," it needs software to animate it beyond inert, useless plastic and metal. Since you only license software rather than buying it, your use of everything you own is subject to terms and conditions handed down with virtually no limitations on abusive overreach. And since the law that protects DRM makes it a felony to tamper with the systems that enforce those terms and conditions, things like kettles and cars and fitness monitors and set-top boxes become a way for corporations to assert long-lasting, far-reaching control over your everyday activities.

The leading edge of this wave is poor people, who are often literal as well as figurative serfs, acquiring their technology through loans or leases, or being required to use them as a condition of their schooling, employment, or carceral status. These people have much less ability to push back against controls than people with money, even the precarious middle class, so they make an excellent testbed for figuring out how to finesse technological control to maximize revenue while minimizing bad PR and possible legal/legislative action.

But the excesses of Detective Mode are just particularly unsavory examples of an increasingly prevalent trend in credit transactions—remote control of devices by lenders, that infringes on the privacy and security of the debtors.

While few lenders will go as far as to take naked pictures of their debtors, wherever there is an expensive device that can be easily absconded with, it makes sense for lenders to add both a kill switch and GPS. A New York Times story in 2014 looked at the increasing prevalence of starter interrupt devices—kill switches—in cars financed by subprime loans, reporting that the mechanisms had "reduced late payments to roughly 7 percent from nearly 29 percent."

Lenders aren't installing these devices because they're interested in tracking their debtors' every move; starter interrupt mechanisms are just an economical way to protect their investments. But even when lenders aren't stooping to the kinds of skin-crawling extremes that warrant a FTC lawsuit, there's something about these controls that feels dangerous and invasive. In the same 2014 report, the Times described how a woman in Austin, Texas, had fled her abusive husband, only to be tracked down by the subprime lender that had financed her car. By driving to the shelter, she had violated the loan agreement, which restricted her from driving outside of a four county radius. She was tracked down via GPS and her car was repossessed.

How Technology Helps Creditors Control Debtors
[Sarah Jeong/The Atlantic]

(Image: NYT)