Privacy please There is an ongoing series exploring the ways privacy is violated in the modern world, and what can be done about it.
The car you drive says a lot more about you than you think.
Over the past few decades, technology has given drivers significant improvements in both safety and convenience – but it has also transformed cars into data-gathering machines. What information is collected for car owners, and where it ends, is not always clear.
This is a potential privacy disaster waiting to happen.
As John Callas, director of technology projects for the Electric Frontier Foundation, explained to Mashable, new cars – and Tesla in particular – are in many ways like smartphones that just happen to have wheels. They are often WiFi-enabled, come with over a hundred CPUs, and have Bluetooth embedded. In other words, they are a far cry from the automobiles of just 20 years ago.
If your car knows where you go, and how long you stay there, it, like your cellphone, hypothetically knows if you’re going to church, attend AA, Or a recent trip to Planned Parenthood. And, depending on the features you have enabled, it may not retain that information.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
What data does your car collect
To understand how cars have become completely full-fledged computers, it is worth considering an apparently simple action, which is performed every time by drivers behind a wheel: the inclusion of a turn signal.
“Things that used to be done by running the wires are actually done on [internal car] network,” explained Callas. “So, you turn on your turn signal and it used to be a switch and then the power went to a light, but now a message goes to the car network.”
When you turn on your headlights, if you turn on your windshield wipers, when you open your driver’s side door, how hard you push or accelerate – all these are now yours as a driver. Profiles have digital data points.
“All these things are able to be logged, at least theoretically,” cautioned Callas. “And there’s a port that you can connect to something — and there’s a lot of hardware and software that you can connect to your car and get all kinds of telemetry information about how the car is going — and Just like there are people who hack their computers, there are people who hack their cars.”
In fact, there is an entire industry built around monitoring, logging, analyzing, and monetizing this type of data. Dubbed telematics, the average consumer may know it because of the technology insurance companies use to offer good driver discounts.
Progressive calls its driver-tracking program Snapshot. Allstate’s program is branded as DriveWise. And Farmers Insurance dubbed its version — which comes in the form of an app with access to drivers’ location data — Signal.
In 2016, wall street journal Throwing light on the hatred of the public towards the then growing industry.
“I know some people say, ‘What do you have to hide,’ but I don’t want big business or Big Brother to get into my personal life,” one San Diego driver told the paper. “It just creeps me out.”
“Telematics (or telematics systems) 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 a small telematics device provided by your insurance company.”
Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a Massachusetts telematics company, manufactures a physical sensor designed to be installed in cars and mobile apps.
A telematic sensor made by Cambridge Mobile Telematics in 2018. The data-collection device is designed to be installed in cars.
credit: Len Turner / Getty
“Our high-frequency sensors can detect phone distractions, classify drivers or passengers, recognize high speeds and hard braking,” the company said on its website.
According to a CNBC story earlier this year, Amazon uses an app called Mentor to track driver behavior. In 2019, Business Insider reported that the app was used to track things like “whether” [delivery drivers] are wearing seat belts while their vehicle is speeding more than 6 mph and record the number of times the van overturns more than 5 yards.”
An Amazon spokesperson confirmed that the company still uses the Mentor program, but “has also incorporated new telematics and camera technology that have improved security.”
It’s not just corporate vehicles that have this type of tracking built-in. OnStar, a roadside-assistance system owned by General Motors, is available on most Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles. Buyers of used cars may find themselves with the OnStar system pre-installed.
GPS location, speed, air bag deployment, accident avoidance warnings, impact data, safety system status, braking and twisting/corner events, incident data recorder (EDR) data, seat belt settings, vehicle direction (heading) , Audio or video information such as camera image and sensor data, voice command information, stability control or anti-lock events, security/theft alerts, and infotainment (including radio and rear-seat infotainment) collected from system and WiFi data usage as information.
In 2021, General Motors announced its intention to expand its OnStar service beyond its line of vehicles.
And then there is the infotainment system. Most modern cars allow drivers to connect their smartphones directly to the car itself. It’s handy if you want to play music or make hands-free calls. It’s less easy, however, if you’re concerned about what secrets are 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, an American company, Berla, manufactures and sells devices that allow police to suck all kinds of data out of cars’ infotainment systems.
Berla’s founder, Ben Lemare, summarized why this data is so powerful and problematic in a June interview highlighted by NBC News.
“People rent cars and work with them and don’t even think about the places they are going and what the car records,” he said.
This problem has not gone unnoticed. One company, Privacy4Cars, claims to offer at least one partial solution: an app that it says provides model-specific, step-by-step instructions to help drivers erase some of their personal data from cars. can get help.
EFF’s Callas explained that some cars now have the equivalent of airline black boxes, which are constantly storing secondhand data in case of an accident. This would, in theory, give an insurance agent or police officer the ability to look at the data and decide who is at fault.
Which, of course, sounds good in essence. Who wouldn’t want to prove with data that the driver in your lane was at fault in an accident?
But the uses do not stop here.
Data is more than just numbers
When it comes to the many forms of modern technology, there is a fine line between convenience and mass surveillance. And, thankfully, it’s one that Kailas suggests we haven’t come across yet. But it doesn’t require mass surveillance to inspire concern.
“It’s kind of a slippery slope, boil the frog,” he explained. “You start with something that’s some combination of cool and appropriate and we now suddenly have a company know where you are and are selling it to anyone, including a lot of government cases. “
It’s kind of a slippery slope, a thing like boiling a frog.
But of course the government already has a means to access the data generated by your vehicle – no purchase required.
Indeed, telematic data has helped send people to jail. In 2016, the technology was used by authorities in the United Kingdom to prove that a driver was speeding and lying about a fatal 2014 crash. And in 2015, telematic data pointed to a teenager who allegedly stole a car.
Things have gone the other way too. In 2013, telematic data helped prove a man’s innocence in a murder case.
And remember OnStar? As Forbes reported in April, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) used OnStar to collect location data on suspects.
That is to say, what your car knows has the power to radically change your life and the lives of those around you.
The data your car generates is taken seriously by law enforcement. You too.
what happens next
So your new car is tracking, and potentially logging, whatever you do. Unfortunately, there are only so many steps you can take — other than buying and running older cars, many of which lack modern security features — to minimize potential privacy losses.
“There’s going to be a lot of choice,” Callas explained.
At a basic level, privacy-conscious drivers may opt out of participating in insurance companies’ telematics programs. They can’t subscribe to services like OnStar, and look for older cars that don’t come with embedded technology. And, of course, they can avoid many of the flashy infotainment features offered by car companies.
In other words, there isn’t a host of settings or features that a driver can turn off or on to suddenly regain the privacy behind the wheel. Data is being collected, whether you like it or not – meaning the best bet is to minimize that collection in the first place.
See all: Why You Need a Secret Phone Number (and How to Get One)
Because once the data is collected, there is a way to use it. Kailas sees this trend only intensifying in the near future.
“I think there’s going to be more and more connected cars, because there are reasons why people want connected cars,” he observed. “There’s going to be more misuse of data.”
So get ready, because when it comes to the future of cars and your privacy, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.