You're Not Driving Alone: Automotive Privacy

New Electronic Intrusions Can Tattle as Well as Teach


  • OnStar Command Center in Detroit

    OnStar Command Center in Detroit

    OnStar only tracks emergencies and contact initiated by subscribers at its command center in Detroit, but its technology is capable of tracking vehicles continuously. | March 18, 2010

2 Photos

Protecting our privacy is getting more difficult against new impingements ranging from identity theft to antiterrorism measures. But at least when we're in our cars, we're safe from prying eyes and ears.

Or we used to be. In fact, Americans no longer can count on the "open road" as a guarantor of privacy. Electronics have produced a whole spate of new ways to monitor where our vehicles are, what goes on under the hood and even what happens inside the cabin.

An even bigger issue is who controls access to the flood of new information — heretofore private — that this Orwellian juggernaut is producing.

"Technology is developing much faster than the law, and faster than we can digest the technology and bring it into sync with American values of privacy," said Jay Stanley, public education director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.

What Are "They" After?
Reasons abound for more electronic monitoring. Automakers use the data in aggregate to make better vehicles and offer motorists more services. Insurance companies want to confirm customers with the best driving habits and lure them with lower rates. The federal government believes the information can help cut traffic accidents.

The frontier in automotive privacy is developing in these arenas:

"Black boxes": Most cars now have devices called Event Data Recorders (EDRs) that track speed, seatbelt usage and other data in the moments before and after impact in an accident. They are vestiges of early efforts to make sure that airbags deployed when they were supposed to.

Automakers and government researchers now use the collective data generated by EDRs to design safety improvements. Problem is, the information also is coveted by police, insurance companies, employers and others who are interested in the behavior of drivers in specific traffic incidents. EDR data caches have been used to convict a significant number of drivers after crashes.

However, one state legislature after another is passing laws requiring automakers to notify customers that their vehicles include an EDR and prohibiting the downloading of data without the owner's permission or a court order. By 2011, the federal government will require automakers that use black boxes to tell owners in their manuals. Still, some companies, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz, note that their vehicles lack EDRs — because their customers wouldn't stand for them.

Telematics: Because they use Global Positioning System (GPS) networks, OnStar and other telematics systems can "know" where each subscriber vehicle is at all times. So for example, when an airbag is deployed, an accident is presumed and OnStar automatically dispatches emergency help to the car's location if it can't reach the driver. OnStar also can track a stolen vehicle at the request of an owner or police and can provide a vehicle's location under court order.

"Consumers are willing to make trade-offs of privacy where there are benefits available to them," said Bill Ball, OnStar's vice president of public policy.

But telematics are becoming more proactive. Insurers are testing offers of premium discounts to drivers who allow monitoring of their vehicle usage. Automakers are harnessing "remote diagnostics" to let subscribers know of maintenance deadlines, issues and problems. And companies soon may suggest "points of interest along your route based on an 'Amazon-like' learning of the things and activities you like," said Mark Perry, Nissan Americas director of product strategy and planning.

Presumed invasions of automotive privacy could increase as well. "Imagine one of your sensors detects an equipment failure in the vehicle and sends an e-mail to the Department of Motor Vehicles," said Chris Tinto, Toyota's vice president of technical and regulatory affairs. "And the DMV says, 'Get the vehicle to an inspection station now or we're going to cancel your registration.'"

Environmental monitoring: A growing number of toll ways will deduct tolls by using antennas to read transponders in vehicles as they zip by. Commuters are tempted with a huge incentive to subscribe to systems such as Illinois' "I-Pass" because old-fashioned tollbooth lanes now are being reduced to a minimum, creating long lines for single-pay users. Already, savvy lawyers are subpoenaing toll-payment records to buttress divorce cases or employment disputes, by proving that individuals weren't actually where they said they were at times in question.

Terrorism threats are serving as the justification for lots more involuntary monitoring of drivers beyond the stoplight cameras that many cities installed years ago. London and Chicago, for example, now have tens of thousands of street cameras that create a real-life, Big Brother type of ubiquity so effectively fictionalized in TV shows such as 24. Google's StreetView initiative promises to add millions more images of thousands of vehicles — and their occupants — roaming roads and neighborhoods around the world.

"If I'm well-informed on these things I could make a personal choice and say, 'Because that turnpike uses cameras, I'm going to take a different route,'" said Paul Williamsen, national manager of Lexus College, the training institution for Toyota's luxury brand. "But I'm not sure we're always informed on these issues."

Vehicle Integration Infrastructure: Real-world tests are set to begin near Detroit in October of the technology for a vast new electronic network sponsored by the federal government and developed by eight automakers. The Vehicle Integration Infrastructure (VII) intends, ultimately, to link every U.S. vehicle with other vehicles and local traffic infrastructure to help drivers avoid everything from imminent accidents at intersections to pockets of freeway congestion. It will take advantage of short-range devices that communicate in milliseconds, much faster than either cellular or WiFi technology.

VII's developers promise that information about what specific vehicles did, and when they did it, will be "anonymized," as it was put by Barbara Wendling, Chrysler's manager of advanced safety technology and rulemaking. And while VII technology would be capable of "automating enforcement," she added, "that would be wildly impractical. Most people would lose their driver licenses within the first month of operation. Everybody understands that you wouldn't want a control system that is that punitive."

Consumers Remain in a Fog
Of course, many consumers would willingly sacrifice significant amounts of privacy for advantages including lower insurance rates, a sense of protection on their travels, and even broad societal benefits such as reduced traffic fatalities. Many parents also are more than willing to take advantage of insurance-industry programs that use in-car cameras to record their kids' driving. (See "How To Keep Tabs on Your Teen Driver.") Nor do consumers seem to mind being tracked by the navigation systems in vehicles they rent.

"You have to end up surrendering a certain amount of privacy to be able to use some of these technologies," said Bruce Belkowski, an associate director at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute. "It will be interesting to see how much people are willing to surrender."

But most consumers are unaware of the extent of automotive eavesdropping, of its technological potential for betraying privacy and of the fragile sheath of laws and regulations that stands as the only barrier to widespread abuse.

Toyota's Williamsen offered an example of how that wall could start to crumble. In Japan, Toyota is a leader in electronic toll selection, which ties vehicles electronically into the nation's single integrated toll way-information system. If  "some regulatory agency suddenly required the revelation of specific locations of specific vehicles at specific times, carmakers could pretty quickly roll something like that out," he said.

But it's murky where this issue might head. "The concept of ubiquitous computing and surveillance is where all society is heading," said Raymond Krause, General Motors' executive director of privacy for North America. "But one individual or company can't possibly foresee all the developments."

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