From police planting GPS devices on automobiles to lawyers seeking black box data in vehicles, automobile privacy has never been a hotter topic. In fact, it’s so hot that auto manufacturers recently pledged to adopt new auto industry privacy guidelines.
Automobiles have never had the highest of 4th amendment privacy protections, and for years courts have struggled with the proper line. With the technology changes afoot, the automobile is positioned to become one of the forefronts of the privacy debate in the coming years. The issues are plenty
- license plate tracking
- telematics – “the branch of information technology that deals with the long-distance transmission of computerized information.”
- telemetrics – “involves the automatic measurement and transmission of data from remote sources.”
- toll transponders
This, of course, doesn’t even begin to address the significant security issues at stake when combining a computer with a 2000 lb hunk of metal that can move at 80mph.
Unfortunately, the auto industry is woefully unprepared for tackling this problem. Having experienced first hand a company that was transitioning from manufacturing to software, I know that the mental shift is huge. I’ve twice gotten in heated discussions with auto industry representatives about vehicle privacy issues only to find the representatives clueless beyond belief. It’s the same tired old refrain, privacy versus security (or in this case safety). Sure, there are anecdotal stories that showcase how privacy invasions save a life, but they don’t outweigh the societal interest of protecting privacy as a whole. The industry espouses the safety benefits of telemetrics to improve vehicle safety. Understanding what causes crashes and how crashes occur can reduce deaths and injuries. However, they won’t invest the time and resources to developing techniques to gather statistical data without siphoning in reams of individual data about individuals drivers and driving habits. Ultimately this individual data can be used against the individual, either in higher insurance rates, automated traffic citations, in legal proceedings, or by nefarious ex-lovers. Technology like differential privacy or similar techniques like the one recently employed by Google to improve Chrome’s performance.
What they auto industry should be investing in (and they are but maybe not enough) is reducing the biggest risk and danger to driver safety: the driver and other drivers. Every year 1.2 million people die in car accidents, countless others are wounded. Some 93 percent of accidents are caused by human error.
The win win solution for privacy AND safety thus is driverless cars that aren’t tied to the identify of the passengers. I hail the nearest car (ala Uber), it picks me up and takes me to my destination. Unfortunately, it isn’t a boon for the auto industry long term because fewer drivers and fewer accidents mean fewer auto sales every year. One estimate says a shared autonomous vehicle may replace 11 individually owned vehicles. The auto industry doesn’t really have much choice, but privacy and safety may not be in their long term interest.