Salt Lake City The new cars we buy today are more complex than they were just 20 years ago. Constantly evolving technology has made these cars safer and more comfortable to drive. But the cost of innovation outweighs the high sticker prices: Privacy advocates say many new car owners are forced to put their personal information on the line.
data collection machines
Unlock a new car and you’ll find more than just an engine, transmission and battery. The new cars come equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mapping services, emergency roadside assistance, dozens of sensors, cameras and computers. All of this and more has turned our cars into data-collecting machines, and that worries privacy experts.
“It certainly comes with a lot of risk in terms of the data collected by these vehicles,” said Associate Professor Sean Lawson of the University of Utah Department of Communications, who researches issues of dealing with cybersecurity. “Especially the way data is shared and sold between different data brokers and some of the potentially nefarious uses of that information.”
From the moment you unlock the car, data logging begins: Is the seat belt closed? Headlights lit? What is playing on the entertainment system? Do you hit the brakes? What is your speed? where are you going?
“If you can start to get a potential picture of where people go regularly over time, you can start to learn a lot about them,” Lawson said.
For sale: your driving data
On some newer car models, data about your trip is transmitted to the manufacturer and from there, to the companies called “vehicle data centers” that sell it. The information is valuable to city and traffic engineers as well as the people who build mapping software. It’s also valuable to insurance companies, advertisers, and bad guys.
The data collected often ends up in the wrong hands. There have been countless reports of data breaches ending with our personal information for sale on the dark web and foreign governments recording our movements across our phones and apps.
“This kind of information can be used to target essentially small groups of people who fit into a very specialized demographic, and these people can then be targeted with messages or intimidation,” Lawson explained.
What about car rental?
It’s not just the car you own that collects data about you – it could be your friend’s car or a rental car. If you pair your phone with your car’s Bluetooth system to make hands-free calls, get directions, or listen to road trip playlists, your car’s infotainment system can pull a lot more about you.
To see for ourselves, KSL investigators rented the simplest car model available from a local rental company. It was still decorated with many modern bells and whistles. And sure enough, from the moment we turned it on, we had personal information about the people who rented it before me. We found that the car’s infotainment system stores phone numbers and call logs — up to 865 contacts from my phone, even though the phone’s Bluetooth is turned off.
“It doesn’t get deleted when you put that car back in,” Lawson warned.
Protect your privacy from your car
Congress has been cracking down on data collection. Phones, social media, and apps are all in the crossfire. But so far, not much focus has been placed on connected cars.
“Current laws provide some protection for data collected from vehicles, which is primarily collected by direct connection to the vehicle,” Lawson explained. “But a lot of these new technologies don’t really go through this (information and entertainment) system. So, there is definitely some work to be done there in terms of expanding those laws.”
Lawson says there’s very little chance of you opting out of your car spying on you, but if all this data collection bothers you, you can try to reduce it.
Find out how the infotainment, navigation and roadside assistance systems work, and what data they feed into. Also, Lawson suggests counter-espionage: If the car computer asks who you are, or your name or email address, don’t provide it or use a fake.
“It elevates the level of work and dedication that a marketing company, criminals, or someone with nefarious intent has to put into knowing who’s data is a kind of anonymity,” he said.
Either that or give up on the modern nitty-gritty by not connecting your phone to your car.
Or, if you’re really worried, find a used car dealership and get something reliable with an old-fashioned AM/FM antenna and paper maps folded in the glove box.
If you rent a car and you connect your phone, be sure to wipe your data from the car’s system before returning it. Apps like Privacy4Cars It can help you clear data from unfamiliar vehicles such as a rental car.