Analysis. Apple already knows that I like an NPR podcast re-airing Car Talk episodes of yesteryear. And it can certainly deduce from my smartphone’s movements that I enjoy listening to the show as a mental change-of-pace while driving home. But as I listen to auto repair advice of decades past interspersed with the hosts’ jests and wisecracks, I don’t often think about what I’m teaching another observer — my vehicle itself.
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It could be that my vehicle’s manufacturer and its partners could (at least potentially) be learning quite a bit. Certainly, it knows that I connect by Bluetooth for ease of phone, music, and podcast use. But could it not also be sensing if and when I have passengers, how heavy we all are, how fast we go, how often we stop, and more? And though I don’t pay for an internet connection package unique to the vehicle, I know that is an option so theoretically it could pass that information along on to a databank in the cloud.
The thing is I don’t really know what my automobile might be recording about me. And I’m not alone.
Privacy4Cars, an automotive data privacy company, suggests the average consumer would need two and a half hours to read through a vehicle’s terms and policies to get a grasp on what information can be collected and how it can be used. So to help shed some light for consumers the company recently launched a new privacy tool similar in ways to a CarFax report you might use to investigate vehicle ownership and maintenance history.
“Consumers don’t realize that when they purchase a vehicle they also agree to have their PI collected, shared, and sold — and potentially left behind and leaked unless proper safeguards are put in place,” said Privacy4Cars CEO Andrea Amico while unveiling his company’s new privacy report. “Unfortunately, until today, trying to understand what owners, renters, and passengers are agreeing to required hours to research and read complex legal documents.”
“Privacy is the new safety,” he added.
In a blog post last year focused on protecting highly sensitive personal data, the Federal Trade Commission actually listed internet-connected cars right after smartphones as places to be aware of when considering location privacy matters (as well as smart devices — see this relevant IFA article titled “Warning: Amazon Vacuums Up A Treasure Map”).
“This location data can reveal a lot about people, including where we work, sleep, socialize, worship, and seek medical treatment,” the agency said. “While many consumers may happily offer their location data in exchange for real-time crowd-sourced advice on the fastest route home, they likely think differently about having their thinly-disguised online identity associated with the frequency of their visits to a therapist or cancer doctor.”
Now information being collected and processed by a car compared to “a smartphone on wheels” is not necessarily something to avoid. Besides access to hands-free calling, GPS maps, and listening entertainment (and maybe videos if you’re parked), connected cars can also be helpful in quickly contacting roadside assistance or emergency responders in case of a breakdown, accident, or other security risk. They may also be equipped with sensors that could detect and even communicate with signs, signals, or other vehicles and result in realtime information that may generally improve road safety, help navigate weather events, reduce traffic congestion, and more.
But again consumers like me may want to know just what is being collected and how it is being used. Is it helping the safety of me and others? Is it informing insurance quote calculations? Is it being used to sell me services or products? Also, what happens to all that data — whether it is stored in the cloud or locally in a car computer — if I want to sell or trade in a car?
While vehicles have been part of the broader data privacy conversation for some time, it’s noteworthy that Congress may soon be invited to take a closer look specifically at connected cars. Earlier this year Reps. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.) — both members of the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee — established a bipartisan Vehicle Data Access Caucus focused on how such information is collected and controlled.
Again we don’t need to fear such technological advances nor should we discount benefits that may come for us and our neighbors. But it is worth being prayerfully mindful what information we’re sharing and with whom as we spend time in our vehicles.
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Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.’s public policy arena. Photo Credit: Canva.