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How your car’s computers can spy on you

Dan Weissmann Nov 14, 2014

How your car’s computers can spy on you

Dan Weissmann Nov 14, 2014

A group of major car-makers has come out with a set of consumer privacy protection principles. In essence, they promise to place limits on the ways their cars will spy on us – and who will get the information the cars collect.

The document includes rules for geolocation (where you are), driver behavior (how fast you drive, whether you’re wearing a seat belt and your “braking habits”) and personal information, including — this is right there in the document — biometrics. 

Of course, modern cars already collect plenty of data.

“Anyone who’s taken their car to a dealer knows that there’s a port the dealer plugs into, and it gives them all kinds of diagnostic information,” says Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, which has issued a white paper about privacy and connected cars.

“But that data used to be in your car. You went into the dealer— he had to plug in,” Polonetsky says. “That wasn’t being sent anywhere.”

Now that cars can connect directly to the Internet, there’s more data to float out there – and some of that data is already floating.

“You’re driving along and advertisements will come up for certain hotels that we use,” says Lori Rectanus, author of a Government Accountability Office report on location-based services in cars

“We look at that and we go, ‘How did they know that?'” she says. “‘How did they know we would be interested in that?’”

The GAO did not find GPS navigation companies selling consumer-location data to advertisers, according to Rectanus. But they could. Or they could get hacked.

The point is: They know where you are, and that’s enough to raise concerns, says Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Lee Tien.

“Somebody might say, ‘Wait a minute. I drove to my oncologist’s. I drove to Planned Parenthood. I drove to this location at this time when there’s an AA meeting,'” Tien says. “There’s lots of things about location that people would rather, often, keep private.”

What if the car has a video camera that could record what you — and your passenger — are doing and saying?  Think about who you tend to be in a car with: “Parents with children, co-workers, colleagues, friends, family,” Tien says. “A lot of conversations, a lot of activity [take place] inside the car.”

There’s also the question of how you drive: Should your car have the ability to issue you a speeding ticket?

The new privacy principles don’t impress Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has pushed for federal legislation to protect privacy in cars. “The principles do not provide consumers with a choice, whether sensitive information is collected in the first place,” he says.

After all, if you don’t want anyone to track you through your phone, you can always turn it off.

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