Web-connected cars bring privacy concerns

  • Article by: CRAIG TIMBERG , Washington Post
  • Updated: March 5, 2013 - 9:02 PM

The issue is who owns the data your car produces – including information about you – and who can have access to it.

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A Ford Motor Corp. Evos concept vehicle, which uses the Sync voice activated in-car connectivity system, is on display at the company’s booth at the Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona, Spain.

Photo: Craig Timberg , Washington Post

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– Cars will soon be so linked into wireless networks they will be like giant rolling smartphones — with calling systems, streaming video, cameras and applications capable of harnessing the unprecedented trove of data vehicles will produce about themselves and the humans who drive them.

The battle over who can access all this data is an awkward undercurrent amid recent announcements by car manufacturers touting their new, Internet-capable vehicle systems.

Low on gas? Soon a gas station app may know before you do. Tires need rotating? Your car may wirelessly alert your dealership when it’s time. Ready for a lunch break? Your car can make a reasonable guess based on the hour. A savvy restaurant app may soon use additional detail, such as whether the person in the back seat is watching a Disney movie, in deciding to offer an advertisement featuring a Happy Meal and directions to the nearest McDonald’s.

Cars have long gathered data to monitor safety and performance. But their newfound connectivity may allow a range of parties — automakers, software developers, perhaps even police officers — new access to such information, privacy advocates say. Because few U.S. laws govern these issues, consumers have little control over who can see this data and how it can be used.

More than 60 percent of vehicles worldwide will be connected directly to the Internet by 2017, up from 11 percent last year, predicts ABI Research. In North America and Europe, that percentage is likely to reach 80 percent.

Many cars already record their speed, direction and gear setting, as well as when brakes activate and for how long. Newer systems also can track whether road surfaces are slick or whether the driver is wearing a seat belt — information potentially valuable to police and insurance companies investigating crashes. (Some car insurance companies already monitor driving behavior in exchange for discounted rates.)

“The cars produce literally hundreds of megabytes of data each second,” said John Ellis, a Ford technologist who demonstrated some of the new Internet-based systems at the company’s display at the Mobile World Congress, which ended last week in Barcelona. “The technology is advancing so much faster than legislation or business models are keeping up. ... What can government do? What can you do?”

Such issues go beyond vehicles. Many of the nearly 1,500 exhibits at the Mobile World Congress touted technology fueled by personal information. Thermostats, health sensors, even Dumpsters, can function better, according to companies exhibiting their products here, if individual behavior is tracked.

‘Black boxes’ to be required

In the United States, proposed new federal highway safety rules would require all new cars by 2014 to come equipped with so-called “black boxes” to save vehicle information from the final seconds before and after crashes. The plan has prompted several privacy groups to lobby for an explicit declaration that data produced by a vehicle is owned by the motorist, with authorities having access only under certain conditions.

Yet some vehicle computer systems already on the road offer the potential for monitoring driver behavior to a far greater extent than “black boxes” do. A critical review of an electric car in the New York Times last month that said the vehicle lost power in cold weather drew an exceptionally detailed rebuttal from the manufacturer, Tesla, that cited logs kept by an onboard computer. (The Times has stood by its review.)

There are few legal standards for what information a vehicle can collect, how it can be used and by whom. Each manufacturer produces its own onboard Internet systems, each with specific rules that few consumers review and even fewer understand, said privacy experts.

“People are being duped into giving away a whole lot of information that maybe somebody ought to ask us about first,” said Dorothy Glancy, a Santa Clara (Calif.) University law professor who studies privacy and transportation. “It seems to me you ought to get a choice.”

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