Car Technology and Privacy

Top 5 Things Your Car Knows About You


  • 2013 Chevrolet Spark

    2013 Chevrolet Spark

    A snooping valet can access your contact list if a phone is paired and within range. | February 12, 2013

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Taking advantage of modern technological conveniences often requires us to give it certain pieces of personal information. Want to have your bills automatically paid each month? You'll need to give the Web site your credit card or checking account information. Want your smartphone to find the nearest Denny's? You'll have to allow it to know your current location.

A new car these days is no different. A modern car with Bluetooth, navigation and an event data recorder is capable of knowing where you've been, who you've called, what your texts say and even whether you are wearing your seatbelt.

But before you swear off on all new cars for fear that Big Brother is tracking your every move, it is important to know that much of the personal information you can give to a car is optional. Nor is the vehicle constantly tracking your location, even if your car has a telematics service such as General Motors' OnStar.

"This is a common misconception," says Nick Pudar, GM's director of global connected consumer. OnStar does not keep track of a vehicle's location until a customer initiates a service request, adds Pudar. A service request could be a call for help after an accident, asking for directions, or calling law enforcement if the car has been stolen. And if you don't like the idea of being connected to a telematics service, you can discontinue it.

Here are other ways to keep your information private while still being able to utilize a car's high-tech features.

1. Your Home Address
Every navigation system gives you the option to program your home address. The idea is that you can simply press a button to go home, rather than input your address every time.

Some people may worry that a shady parking valet or mechanic will check your home address and plan to pay you a visit down the road.

There are three ways around this. First, you can simply choose not to store your address in the navigation system. The other workaround is to select an intersection or public place, like a restaurant, in your neighborhood. Choose a place that offers you an easy route home but one that's far enough from your home for you to feel safe. Pudar suggests a police station near your home. "If someone steals your car and they navigate 'home,' they'll be in for a big surprise."

The third option is to engage the valet mode on you vehicle's navigation screen. This is a feature on newer GM and Ford vehicles. Think of this as a pin-protected lock screen on your phone. Once you've set a four digit pin, the screen will not show any personal data.

2. Recently Navigated Locations
Every navigation system maintains a log of the last few places you routed. This is a handy feature if you want to return to the same place but can't remember how you got there. There isn't a way we know of to disable the log, but all navigation systems let you delete the recent destinations. A security-conscious driver would just need to make a habit of regularly deleting the entries.

Some navigation systems track your frequently travelled locations and automatically mark the map with a "breadcrumb" trail. This function is not on by default and must be turned on by the driver. If you think a dealership enabled it before delivery of your new car, you can check and then turn it off.

3. Your Phone's Contacts
If your vehicle has hands-free calling via Bluetooth, it will most likely ask you whether you want to download your address book to the car's memory. This way, you can use the car's touchscreen to find a contact. It's less distracting than finding it on your phone.

If the idea of having all your contacts being stored in your vehicle makes you uneasy, there are ways around it. The easiest option is to say "No," when the system prompts you to download your phonebook. If you need to make a call, however, you will have to enter the number on the phone, rather than on the in-dash display.

If you do choose to have your contacts stored in the car, chances are that the information will still be secure. Many of the vehicles we tested do not display the phonebook if the phone has not been paired via Bluetooth.

"We've had Sync in our cars since 2007 and the phone must be paired in order to view the contacts," says Alan Hall, technology communications manager for Ford Motor Company.

In other words, if someone turned off Bluetooth on their phone before leaving the car with the valet, the contacts would not be visible. Activating valet mode in a car that has that feature would also alleviate this concern.

4. Emails and Texts
This convenience feature is becoming more common on newer vehicles from BMW, Ford, Honda and others. If the car owner receives a text message or email on his smartphone while driving, the message will appear on-screen or a voice system will read it aloud.

This is a handy feature, and a good way to avoid distracted driving, but are those emails accessible to anyone else who drives the vehicle? The answer is no.

These systems transmit the information via Bluetooth and therefore need an active connection in order for the information to display. As with your contacts, you can keep them private by turning the Bluetooth off when you're handing the car over to someone you don't want knowing your personal business.

5. Speed, Braking and Seatbelt Use
Event data recorders (EDR), or car "black boxes," are in about 96 percent of 2013 vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. An EDR captures crash data in the moments leading up to the point of impact. It is capable of knowing the vehicle's speed, braking status, force of impact and even who had their seatbelt on.

This data isn't being sent back to the car manufacturer or anyone else, however. As its name implies, an EDR requires an "event" to occur before recording its data. And once the data has been recorded, it belongs to the owner of the vehicle. Even your insurance company must ask for permission before accessing the EDR's memory. The location of the EDR can vary and it must be hooked up to a computer with the proper software before a technician can extract the data. This isn't something a snooping valet can do.

This article has more detailed information on car black boxes and what your rights are.

Bonus: Low-Tech Vulnerability
We'd be remiss if we didn't point out that your car has in it one obvious piece of personal information with your home address: Your vehicle registration. There is nothing that stops a snoop with access to your car from opening your glovebox and seeing where you live. The fix is low-tech and easy: Lock your glovebox and make a habit of bringing your valet key with you when you dine out or take the car for service.

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