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How Tracking Tools in Your Car Can Reveal What You Say, Where You Go, and What You Do

The amazing new communication technologies in cars can greatly enhance the driving experience, but they may compromise privacy.

 The Chevrolet Vega of 1975 came equipped with an electronic control unit underneath the hood. Through a network of sensors this unit monitored the vehicle’s essential systems: throttle position, idle speed, coolant temperature and most importantly, the fuel injection system — a first for an American car. The device synthesized the data and adjusted these systems to achieve maximum efficiency. It functioned inconspicuously—no dashboard touch screen or “driver interface” — and it was purely self-contained. Neither the control unit nor the Vega communicated with the outside world.

What a difference a few decades makes. At the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford proudly unveiled the latest edition of MyFord Touch, an in-car communication and entertainment system available in most of its models. An amazing technical achievement, the system can do fun things — like seamlessly integrate a smartphone or mobile media player with the vehicle’s audio system to facilitate hands-free operation — as well as arguably more vital things like accessing traffic and road construction information in real time through an Internet-based system operated by a company,  INRIX, that specializes in delivering current traffic info.

Information provided by “black boxes,” telematics, environmental monitoring, automated tolling devices like EZpass and (in the future) vehicle integration infrastructures all have the ability to make driving safer, more convenient, and more enjoyable.

But while drivers become more accustomed to and even demanding of “connectivity” behind the wheel, each advance can pose a threat to privacy. While users of MyFord Touch are likely fine that their car’s experience helped INRIX deliver a more complete traffic picture to others, they might not be so forgiving if their personal data ever were shared with third parties, ranging from say, a marketer to a divorce lawyer to law enforcement. (INRIX, to be clear, is not selling that information. “Unlike others who are trying to create ancillary business out of [personal identifiable information],” says the company’s Jim Bak, “who is sending us data is unimportant to us. What’s important is getting an accurate understanding of how fast traffic is moving in a given direction, on a given road at a particular time.” )

Watchdogs such as the  Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are concerned with these issues. They include such vehicle privacy issues, along with questions ranging from tracking mobile phones to Google Street View, in what they term  locational privacy.

Vehicle “telematics” is a newly coined term that, broadly defined, refers to the collection, transmission, and analysis of data derived from motor vehicles. So far, its use has related mostly to commercial activity — monitoring semis to ensure they’re on schedule, looking at the travel of sales reps in the field, etc.

But most cars sold to the public come equipped with similar technology, and these capabilities have given birth to networks such as GM’s OnStar and Ford’s Sync, which offer services such as navigation, hands-free calling, remote diagnostics, and “in-vehicle security” (including the ability of a service adviser to unlock the car if the driver locks the keys inside).

The amount of data gathered by these systems is extensive and includes location, speed, and distance traveled — all of which a driver may prefer be private. INRIX, for one, asks its customers to strip out “personal identifiable information” as it leaves the vehicle, explains Bak, while feeding the location, heading and speed data into the algorithms that in turn provide breaking traffic data.

“A vehicle’s location is potentially the most sensitive piece of driver information,” says Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the  American Civil Liberties Union. “Location can reveal what businesses a person frequents, where they worship, who they associate with, etc.” The legal precedent set by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the FBI to search public library records, Stanley explains, can be used to access automotive telematics data. That information, in the same vein as library records, consists of archived data that is held by a third party and thus ineligible for Fourth Amendment protection.

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