Vehicles have become rolling data collectors. Fitted with telematics systems, which allow vehicles to communicate with the outside world, the family crossover now has the capacity to monitor our behavior as faithfully as any computer or electronic-surveillance instrument. And as with other modern threats to privacy, we arrived here out of a desire to improve safety.
General Motors spearheaded the first widespread deployment of in-vehicle data recorders, or “black boxes,” in the 1990s, coincident with new airbag regulations. The technology was developed to capture crucial information about real-world crashes to help engineers and researchers improve automotive safety. Today, however, insurance and law-enforcement investigators commonly use the data for crash reconstruction and as evidence in legal cases. You can prove your innocence or be found at fault in an accident with the information captured by a black box. Indeed, event-data recorders (EDRs) installed in Toyota vehicles cleared the company from liability in NHTSA’s 2011 unintended-acceleration investigation.
The specter of black boxes is less chilling than the one raised by telematics, though. While EDRs basically just take notes, cellular-linked technology such as Ford’s Sync or GM’s OnStar can transmit any onboard data stream in real time. And the nature of their two-way communication means that telematics systems will become tempting targets for hackers, says Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technology-focused civil-liberties group.
But a more immediate concern is that these systems can also transmit GPS-derived location information. And while we subscribe to the belief that you are what you drive, the reality is that you are really defined by where you drive.
“Location data is one of the most sensitive kinds of data about us,” says Cardozo. “Anyone who has this data can figure out an amazing array of things about a person.”
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