Your Car is Selling You Out
On the dashboard of my car is a tiny square, just a little bit bigger than a postage stamp, that is worse than my sister ever was.
If I drive too fast, it tattles.
If I brake too hard, it tattles.
If I accelerate too quickly — though I struggle to think how this would be possible in a 2017 Nissan Versa — it would tattle.
And I accept that. In return for opening that window into my driving habits, I theoretically can save money on my car insurance. Yet even this claim is a bit duplicitous. When this technology came about, most insurance companies simply raised rates on those who didn’t agree to the sanctioned snooping and lower them only for those whose allegedly “safe” driving is verifiable.
But fine. Whatever. That’s a topic for another day.
What I don’t accept is how Big Data companies are turning cars into spies, allowing data brokers to sell a lot more than my driving habits to advertisers all too eager to drink from the firehose of information about me and all of the rest of us who fail to realize their vehicles are just like smartphones — only worse.
How Bad Is It?
Bad. Very bad.
While smartphone companies and apps like Facebook, err, Meta, have been castigated and fined for their sketchy privacy protection performance, the world of smartcar spying is largely unregulated when it comes to data collection and use. Most companies gathering the data fly under the radar and are names you’ve never heard of — companies such as Here and Telenav and Otonomo and INRIX.
And here’s the thing: You’ve agreed to let companies like this do whatever they want with your data because you’re just like every single other human being out there who doesn’t read the fine print before clicking that you agree with every single word in that fine print.
If you happened to pause and read that fine print, you’d see that simply by purchasing a car or signing up for state-mandate car insurance, you’re agreeing to allow data companies to gather and sell information about you to, yes, help with traffic management, electric vehicle infrastructure planning and mapping, but also to allow advertisers to learn every single driving-related habit you might have.
“But I have nothing to hide,” you said.
Good. Because you’re up for bid. Among the data your car is constantly gathering from you:
- Your precise location at precise times.
- Whether your doors are locked.
- What song you’re listening to.
- How fast you’re going.
- What the internal cabin temperature is.
- Whether the sunroof is opened.
- Whether you have passengers in the car.
- Which seats those passengers are sitting in.
- Whether you applied the brakes.
- If you used your turn signal.
- Whether your headlights are on.
- If your oil level is low.
And that might be fine. Except your car isn’t just collecting that information for a rainy day. It’s actively tattling on you. Your car’s data center is constantly searching for the nearest Vehicle Data Hub (yes, that’s a thing) to beam your information to so it can be collected by the companies mentioned above and the dozens and dozens of others just like them.
Anonymized & Aggregated
Now, the good news is this: Your information is usually anonymized and aggregated with the information of all the other drivers around you whose cars are selling them out.
I say that because I’ve seen it not work that way.
I worked at a company that provided benefits to a religious denomination’s workers. How people interacted with our website was deemed important to make it more relevant and easier to navigate. So they started recording how individual users used the site.
I could watch recordings of how you scrolled around the site, with all the information needed to identify you as an individual. I could see how you moved your mouse. I could see what you stopped to read. I could see what you clicked on.
So if you thought you were looking up information about a sensitive and personal health topic, well, just know that anyone with the same access to the computer system I had could learn all about what was ailing you. Nowhere and in no way were site visitors told they were being recorded. And I must stress this again: This was an insurance provider with ties to a rel1igious denomination.
Sure, that information was eventually aggregated and anonymized. Eventually. Just as your car data is eventually aggregated and anonymized.
This Is Consent?
Some of these companies don’t even pretend that they’re anonymizing and aggregating. Instead, they fall back on the “user consent” thing and say your information is being sent only to insurers for underwriting purposes.
Cool. But did you know this is what you consented to? You do now.
Even those companies that profess to hold your data tighter than a toddler does his blankie are far from perfect. In one example, Otonomo — which emphasizes “privacy and security by design” and promotes the use of patented “data blurring” technology — was found in 2021 to have individual vehicle data in free samples on its site.
Not very blurry, huh?
How precise is this data? Fortunately, some of these companies are publicly traded and are forced to reveal some of their dirty little secrets. For example, take Wejo, a vehicle data hub based in England that says its data represents one in every 28 vehicles in the United States. It claims to own 16.2 trillion data points and 76.7 billion driver journeys with accuracy down to 3 meters.
Think there are advertisers out there who would love that information about you? Also, do you wonder if there might be some bad actors in the dingier haunts of the internet who could find creative ways to use that data about you, your husband, you children?
Sadly, this sort of thing isn’t rare. A popular app used by parents to track the whereabouts of their minor kids was discovered to be selling precise user locations openly on the internet to whomever wanted to buy it. That meant your child’s daily patterns were knowable by anyone.
Can You Stop This?
So what can you do? Right now, short of reverting to a horse and buggy, not much. If you’ve bought a car made after around the early 2010s, it is selling you out, and there are very few ways to stop it.
Though they are far, far, far from perfect, smartphone makers such as Apple and Google have created finely detailed mechanisms to turn off pieces and parts of the flood of information flowing out of your pocket.
Most cars have little to none of that.
You’re either in or out when you click on the terms of service, and as we know, most don’t stop to read those things because of the assumption that if we don’t agree, we’re not going to be able to partake in the fancy shmancy service being dangled in front of our faces.
A good place to start would be to allow data to be used only in the spirit of which it’s gathered. So, for example, if you consent to giving out your location data to provide your precise place on a map, it should be used only to deliver that service, not to sell it to a data broker who’s going to market it to businesses all along the streets you frequent or whoever else wants to buy it.
Right now, awareness is key. That’s what sparked Apple to become a leader in pushing data privacy — not because they truly care about your privacy, mind you, but because they found they could sell more phones and apps since you care about it and they can use it as a differentiator from other smartphone manufacturers.
Eventually, with enough awareness, a car company or two will find it in their best financial interest to do the same thing, to promote itself as the car that doesn’t tattle and sell you out.
How much more would you be willing to pay for that kind of privacy?
Let’s hope we soon have the chance to find out.
John Agliata is a marketing professional with more than 30 years of communications experience. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 226-5852.
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