Your car is spying on you and here’s what it knows

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Like a computer on wheels, the vehicle you drive is likely sending constant streams of data about you to the automaker. While this is not a new phenomenon, with the advance of technology the amount of information — and the deepening feeling of an encroachment on privacy — is growing.

More than 90% of new vehicles have electronic sensors called event data recorders (EDRs) in them, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, a think tank for Congress.

Your vehicle is divulging your personal information to the car maker

Under the guise of sifting information from drivers to better improve vehicle and road safety, these EDRs are pulling reams of personal data from motorists, from where they go every day to individual driving habits such as median speed and favorable routes.

The issue of cyber-connected cars was covered recently in the Washington Post, where Lisa Joy Rosner, chief marketing officer of Otonomo, a firm that handles vehicle data, said this: “The thing that car manufacturers realize now is that they’re not only hardware companies anymore — they’re software companies.”

This high-tech concept of the all-knowing, all-seeing smart car is being tailgated by growing privacy concerns. And the rules — both legal and ethical — are not as clear as they could be. For instance, if you go to purchase a vehicle, is it the car salesman or saleswoman’s responsibility to tell you that your every move will be tracked — or should that responsibility fall to the automaker?

Do consumers have a right to know that although they will be alone in the car at some point, the experience will be far from private? And who ultimately owns the data?

“We need to clearly establish the principle that the data on these black box computers belongs to the person who owns the car,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with American Civil Liberties Union, said in an op-ed. “When you buy a car, you also buy the many computers that, increasingly, run that car. The data on your EDR should belong to you — and be no more accessible to the police or anyone else without a warrant, or your consent, than the data on the laptop sitting on the seat next to you.”

Here’s what your vehicle is telling the automaker about you

So what kind of personal information are car companies tracking? On the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website,  an FAQ lists what kind of data is being divulged through EDRs.

From the government’s point of view, as brought out in the report from the Congressional Research Service mentioned above, the data can help public safety agencies in a variety of ways. “They may be used by law enforcement agencies to help determine why an accident occurred. They could potentially be used to evaluate a driver’s responsibility for a crash. The data are used by automakers to better understand vehicle performance in crash situations, thereby possibly leading to vehicle redesign and safer automobiles. They may also be used by federal, state, and local highway officials to evaluate road conditions and safety configurations that could be improved to mitigate accidents.”

While the data transmissions are all framed in the context of vehicle and road safety, it’s clear that auto companies are getting way more information than whether or not you pressed the accelerator just before a crash.


Here’s Clark’s take on connected cars

Money expert Clark Howard says smart cars that continually transmit driver data to automakers offer consumers a mixed bag.

“It’s one of those areas, where it’s really positive and really bad at the same time,” Clark says. He says that his car manufacturer frequently sends data to his vehicle online. “When there’s an issue that they learn about from the data they collect, they send it right over the internet. Your car will tell you that it’s been updated.”

He says that such technology offers a real time-saving benefit: Instead of going into the shop for a recall caused by some defect, these connected vehicles can take care of many electrical issues seamlessly through the internet.

“So from a safety standpoint, collecting information is great, but what concerns me is automakers aren’t being upfront and honest about how they’re getting this information. So much of this is that they’re not forthcoming. We should be given the option” to decide our level of privacy, he says.

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