In recent years, automobiles, SUVs and pickup trucks have transformed from private transportation to private detectives. While you keep your eyes on the road, vehicles are keeping an eye on you.
Your spouse may not know where you were last night. Your boss likely has no idea where you go after leaving work. But GM, Ford, Toyota and a growing list of automakers have access to that information — and more. Owners of late model cars, SUVs, vans and pickups, beware.
They know where you drive and when. They know who you talk to on the phone. They know the topics of your e-mails. They may even have photos of your dog. Automobiles, festooned with computers (internet-connected or -accessible at a car dealership repair bay) have become the latest front in the war on privacy.
To be sure, automakers promise they’ll be prudent in how they store and safeguard all the information being scooped up by car computers. Legions of banks, credit card companies and retailers that have been hacked made similar pledges.
Car computers not only tempt scoundrels, they entice police. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief in a case that would bar police from warrantless searches of the “black boxes” that house many of the details of the what, when and how of a motorist facing arrest.
The amount and detail of data collected in newer cars can be dazzling. A Washington Post reporter, with the help of a technician, learned a lot about the previous owner of a Chevrolet that had an infotainment computer, a device he later bought on eBay for $375.
“It contained enough data to reconstruct the upstate New York travels and relationships of a total stranger. We know he or she frequently called someone listed as ‘Sweetie,’ whose photo we also have. We could see the exact Gulf station where they bought gas, the restaurant where they ate (called Taste China) and the unique identifiers for their Samsung Galaxy Note phones.”
Such details offer treasure for companies looking to resell data on shopping centers patronized, radio stations dialed in, vacation spots visited. Access to car computers also have proved an irresistible target for hackers with malice on their minds.
A radio-controlled remote start application exposed more than 66,000 buyers to miscreants who could use the information to disable a car, whether parked or zipping along a highway at top speed. Adopting computer tech in cars clearly presents a mix of convenience and peril.
Who wants to get in a cold car in January if a remote start promises a toasty greeting? Who wants to give up OnStar and similar communication services that offer help in an emergency — or advice on where to find a good nearby restaurant?
The options against giving away personal data are few. The Federal Trade Commission advises a long list of precautions to take when selling your car. They include having an expert purge information on trips, telephone contacts, and digital content, such as music.
Until tech defenses improve, the only sure safeguard for the security conscious may be to hang onto that rusty jalopy. It may break down, but it won’t tattle on you.