Your car knows too much about you. It could be a privacy nightmare.
Discretion please is an ongoing series exploring the ways in which privacy is violated in the modern world and what can be done about it.
The car you drive says more about you than you might think.
Over the past few decades, technology has brought remarkable improvements in safety and convenience for drivers, but it has also turned cars into data-gathering machines. What information is collected and where it ends up is not always clear to car owners.
It’s a potential privacy disaster waiting to happen.
As Jon Callas, director of technology projects for the Electric Frontier Foundation, explained to Mashable, new cars – and Tesla’s in particular – are in many ways like smartphones that just have wheels. They are often WiFi compatible, come with more than a hundred processors and integrate Bluetooth everywhere. In other words, they are a far cry from the automobiles of just 20 years ago.
If your car knows where you are going and how long you are there, it, like your cell phone, also hypothetically knows if you are a practitioner, if you are in AA, or if you have taken a recent Planned Parenthood trip. And, depending on what features you have enabled, it may not keep this information to itself.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What data your car collects
To understand how completely computerized cars are, it’s worth considering a seemingly simple action drivers take every time they get behind the wheel: turn on a turn signal.
“The things that were done by passing threads are actually done on this [internal car] network, ”Callas explained.“ So you turn your turn signals and there was a switch and then the electricity was going to a light, but now a message goes over the car’s network. ”
How hard you brake or accelerate, when you turn on your headlights, if you turn on your wipers, when you open the driver’s side door – these are all now digital data points in a profile of you as the driver.
“All of these things can at least theoretically be recorded,” Callas warned. “And there’s a port that you can plug something in – and there’s a lot of hardware and software that you can plug into your car and get all kinds of telemetry information about how the car works – and everything like that. there are people who hack their computers, there are people who hack their cars. “
In fact, there’s an entire industry built around monitoring, logging, analyzing, and monetizing this kind of data. Called telematics, the average consumer may know it as the technology used by insurance companies to offer discounts to good drivers.
Progressive calls its driver tracking program Snapshot. Allstate’s program is called Drivewise. And Farmers Insurance dubbed its version – which comes in the form of an app with access to driver location data – Signal.
In 2016, the the Wall Street newspaper highlighted the public’s aversion to the then booming industry.
“I know some people say, ‘What have you got to hide’, but I don’t want big business or Big Brother involved in my personal life,” a driver from San Diego told the newspaper. “It scares me.”
“Telematics (or a telematics system) is a method used to collect information about your mileage and driving habits,” Allstate said on its website in 2020. “Telematics data is typically captured by a mobile app or driver. small telematics device provided by your company insurance. “
Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a Massachusetts telematics company, manufactures both a physical sensor designed to be installed in cars and a mobile app.
A telematics sensor, manufactured by Cambridge Mobile Telematics, in 2018. The data collection device is designed for installation in cars.
Credit: Lane Turner / getty
“Our high-frequency sensors can identify telephone distractions, classify drivers or passengers, recognize speeding tickets and hard braking, all without complicated installation,” the company said on its website.
Amazon uses an app called Mentor to track driver behavior, according to a CNBC story from earlier this year. In 2019, Business Insider reported that the app was being used to track things like ‘if [delivery drivers] wear a seat belt while their vehicle is traveling over 6 mph and record how many times the van is backing up more than 5 meters. “
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed that the company still uses the Mentor program, but has also “incorporated new telematics and camera technologies that have improved security.”
It’s not just company vehicles that incorporate this type of tracking. OnStar, a roadside assistance system owned by General Motors, is available on most Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles. Used car buyers may find themselves with OnStar systems preinstalled.
GPS location, speed, airbag deployment, crash avoidance alerts, crash data, safety system status, braking and yaw / deviation of turn events, data logger data event (EDR), seat belt settings, vehicle direction (heading), audio or video information such as information collected from camera images and sensor data, voice command information, anti-lock or stability control, security / theft alerts and infotainment system (including radio and rear seat infotainment) and WiFi data usage.
In 2021, General Motors announced plans to expand its OnStar service beyond its own lineup of vehicles.
And then there’s the infotainment system. Most modern cars allow drivers to connect their smartphones directly to the car itself. This is handy if, for example, you want to listen to music or make hands-free calls. It’s less convenient, however, if you’re worried about secrets being passed between devices.
Connecting your phone to your car can, in some cases, automatically copy your contact list and all text messages from your phone to your vehicle. As the Intercept reported in March 2021, Berla, an American company, manufactures and sells devices that allow police to extract all kinds of data from car infotainment systems.
Berla founder Ben LeMere summed up why this data is so powerful and problematic, in a June interview highlighted by NBC News.
“People rent cars and go and do things with them and don’t even think about where they’re going and what the car is recording,” he noted.
This problem has not gone unnoticed. One company, Privacy4Cars, claims to offer at least a partial solution: an app it claims provides model-specific step-by-step instructions to help drivers erase some of their personal data from cars.
EFF’s Callas explained that some cars now have the equivalent of airline black boxes, which constantly store data down to the second in the event of an accident. This would, in theory, allow an insurance agent or a police officer to look at the data and decide who is at fault.
Which, of course, sounds great in the abstract. Who wouldn’t want to be able to prove, with data, that the driver who swerved in your lane was at fault in an accident?
But the uses do not stop there.
Data is more than numbers
When it comes to many forms of modern technology, there is a fine line between convenience and mass surveillance. And, luckily, this is the one Callas suggests we haven’t been through yet. But surveillance doesn’t have to be large-scale for it to cause concern.
“It’s kind of a slippery slope, boil the frog kind,” he explained. “You start with something that is a combination of cool and reasonable and now we come to a point where all of a sudden a company knows where you are and sells it to anyone who wants it, including in many cases the government.”
It’s kind of a slippery slope, boil the kind of frog.
But of course the government already has a way to access the reams of data generated by your vehicle – no purchase necessary.
Indeed, telematics data has helped send people to jail. In 2016, the technology was used by UK authorities to prove that a driver was speeding up and lying about a fatal crash in 2014. And in 2015, telematics data pointed to a teenager allegedly stealing a car.
Things went the other way as well. In 2013, telematics data helped prove a man’s innocence in a murder case.
And do you remember OnStar? As Forbes reported in April, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) used OnStar to collect whereabouts data on suspects.
That is, what your car knows has the power to fundamentally change your life and the lives of those around you.
Law enforcement takes the data generated by your car seriously. You should too.
What happens next
So your new car potentially tracks and records everything you do. Unfortunately, there are only a number of steps you can take – other than buying and driving older cars, many of which lack modern safety features – to mitigate potential damage to privacy. .
“A lot of it will be choices,” said Callas.
At a basic level, privacy-conscious drivers may refuse to participate in insurance company telematics programs. They can’t subscribe to services like OnStar and search for used cars that don’t have built-in technology. And, of course, they can avoid a lot of flashy infotainment features offered by automakers.
In other words, there aren’t a multitude of settings or features that a driver can turn on or off to suddenly regain privacy behind the wheel. Data is collected whether you like it or not, which means your best bet is to minimize this collection in the first place.
SEE ALSO: Why do you need a secret phone number (and how to get one)
Because once the data is collected, it has a way of being used. Callas sees this trend only accelerating in the near future.
“I think there are going to be more and more connected cars, because there are reasons people want connected cars,” he observed. “There are going to be more misuse of the data.”
So buckle up, because when it comes to the future of cars and your privacy, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.