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Sorry, we're turning your connected device into a brick now

It seems unbelievable, but we are starting to see real incidents of connected products that are being abandoned by their manufacturers well before their end of life, leaving buyers with unusable hardware. The case of the Revolv hub sets an ominous precedent that should give us all pause for thought when buying any new hardware devices in the future. Essentially, they've decided to turn the products that people bought from them into bricks. Anything we might buy in the future, from light bulbs to cars, can (and probably will be) connected to the Internet. This fact, in itself, presents some risks that many security experts are trying to understand and communicate to people. But a more fundamental risk we all need to start considering is what happens if the manufacturer or vendor goes out of business, gets purchased by another company, or just decides to stop supporting the devices? You could be stuck with a brick, or at least a less useful version of what you thought you were buying. It might even cause more serious impacts.

It seems unbelievable, but we are starting to see real incidents of connected products that are being abandoned by their manufacturers well before their end of life, leaving buyers with unusable hardware. The case of the Revolv hub sets an ominous precedent that should give us all pause for thought when buying any new hardware devices in the future. Essentially, they’ve decided to turn the products that people bought from them into bricks.

Anything we might buy in the future, from light bulbs to cars, can (and probably will be) connected to the Internet. This fact, in itself, presents some risks that many security experts are trying to understand and communicate to people. But a more fundamental risk we all need to start considering is what happens if the manufacturer or vendor goes out of business, gets purchased by another company, or just decides to stop supporting the devices? You could be stuck with a brick, or at least a less useful version of what you thought you were buying. It might even cause more serious impacts.

Revolv was a company that was formed in 2012 with the goal of helping manage home-based networks of devices such as thermostats, motion sensors and lighting systems. However, in 2014 Revolv was purchased by Google Nest, the maker of a “smart thermostat” product that lets you manage your home heating and air conditioning automatically and remotely. Apparently, Google liked the team at Revolv and thought they would be a good fit for the Nest product team. But two years after buying Revolv, they announced that they would be shutting down the Revolv hub’s central web service that all Revolv devices rely on to perform their programmed functions.

Incredibly, the product will no longer operate after the central service shuts down. So, anyone who bought a Revolv hub will no longer be able to use it. Revolv says that all devices are past their one year warranty period. But we usually expect that products will continue to work unless wear-and-tear or incompatibility issues start to appear with other products with which they communicate. However, this is the first time a product will literally have been “turned off” because the manufacturer just doesn’t want to support it any more. They have better things to do.

This raises an important “buyer beware” issue for anyone thinking of buying a connected device. Any device that relies on you to create an account at the manufacturer’s or provider’s website has a potential single-point-of-failure that can render the device useless if the vendor goes under or decides to stop supporting the device. Once the service goes offline, your device may stop working entirely, or may not receive security patches, which can expose your system to being taken over by attackers attempting extortion or ransomware.

This discontinuation of support by Revolv and Google Nest sets a dangerous precedent for products in the future that could leave buyers with useless hardware devices. We need to keep the pressure on all vendors of products as virtually everything will become “connected”, and many will be designed with a reliance on a website to perform their basic functions. This is an important harbinger of things to come as we move to a more connected world.

One important thing for buyers of any new products from now on is to carefully consider whether or not a product uses an industry standard for its communications and control. This could allow the device to work with other services, rather than just being tied to a service provided by the original manufacturer. You should never assume that the manufacturer will continue to support any service that their products rely on, at least not if they don’t make any explicit statements about that service up front.

You also need to consider how “mission critical” the systems you’re connecting to these devices are. In other words, what if the vendor disables the system (intentionally or accidentally), and all your lights go out, or your furnace turns off? Who will be liable? If the vendors have their way, it won’t be them. So, it comes down to you making that risk decision.

At this point Revolv owners have no recourse for continuing to use their devices at all. So we need manufacturers to communicate clearly and in advance how they plan to support, update and deprecate (discontinue) support for their products. These statements from manufacturers must address the inherent dependencies that connected devices have on their “mother ship” to operate or support features of the product or service in the future.

Here’s a CBC article on the Revolv hub situation, and how it’s affecting customers who bought the product.

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