Categories: EducationalGadgets

Your Car Is Spying On You – A Digital Privacy Alert

This is not a conspiracy theory: your car is watching your every move.

While connected cars may sound appealing and convenient, remember that every digital device comes with some kind of price tag. In this case, it’s your privacy; and to date, there’s a serious lack of legislation to regulate what kind of information automakers can collect from drivers.

You may be familiar with insurance surveillance in cars, like Progressive’s Snapshot® that record accident and vehicle data. Other ‘nanny cams’ are more common in law enforcement vehicles, though they are becoming more widely used in consumer automobiles. In Europe, for example, insurance companies are using the data obtained to change premium rates based on speed, mileage and location (you can read the full report from FIPA – the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association – including vehicle information disclosure and access).

Car surveillance in these cases can hurt (or help) your premium. But what if a less obvious surveillance system is collecting your data? 

Car Surveillance courtesy of ETC News

Technology advancements have made tracking relatively easy for auto manufacturers. Data collection can be hidden within an electronic toll booth pass, GPS navigation or satellite radio system. Consider all the fine print in the contracts you sign when purchasing or leasing a vehicle – average car buyers wouldn’t know if they gave permission to collect such data. Law makers haven’t caught up with the technology, either. The same privacy legislation that applies to Internet data disclosure does not include vehicle data. As a Ford marketing exec mentioned at CES according to Bloomberg Business, ‘we know everyone who breaks the law; we know when you’re doing it.’

The initial purpose of vehicle black boxes is to record accident data similar to aircraft crashes, and will become standard according to government mandates in the near future. The accident recorders will log details such as vehicle speed, airbag deployment, brake usage, impact site/severity, and seat belt usage. Theoretically this will make driving safer, but again, the tradeoff for some users might be too high.

Though there are no current plans to collect data for marketing purposes or criminal surveillance as a standard, some automakers are already attempting to do so. Some frightening examples of privacy breaches include:

  • CTV News Canada reported previously on GM’s OnStar updated their terms briefly last year to provide collected data to its partners for both current and previous customers using free trial and paid subscriptions.
  • Navigation system manufacturer TomTom was cited for selling vehicle data to the government, as reported by BBC News.
  • Car monitoring smartphone apps, including Nissan’s Leaf program collects vague information including ‘other spot data to assist in identifying and analyzing the performance of the Nissan Leaf’ according to USA Today.
  • Allstate records your stereo volume according to Jalopnik.
  • The Independent alleges Volvo marketed their service station based on location data in the Netherlands.
  • Automakers including Tesla, Mercedes and Hyundai have used data to update vehicle electronics remotely, states Consumer Reports.
  • Your rental car isn’t a safehaven, either. Hertz installed surveillance cameras in their NeverLost dashboard assistant in at least 1 in 8 vehicles starting in 2014, according to Main Street.
  • The Huffington Post notes that a Yahoo Autos report claims more than 96% of new cars have data records that ‘reveal the details of a vehicle before an accident’.

Several court cases involving black box data have been overturned in drivers favor, but the bigger issue here is not guilt or innocence, it’s user privacy and security. What other instances of digital privacy violations have you heard about? Share your story in the comments.

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