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Even today’s automobiles have been turned into “smart cars” with the integration of recent technological innovations. Some of the potential benefits of these ideas are exciting, but they’re also causing some consumer advocates to raise alarms.
Automakers have long been gathering information about different operations and functions in cars, but this information has mostly been used to help manufacturers improve their designs and safety features based on the habits of drivers.
But today, cars are beginning to come equipped with wireless Internet connectivity systems, apps, video, and other features that turn them into virtual-data mining systems. The potential uses of this information are almost limitless.
Imagine your car sensing that your tires are wearing unevenly. It could send a message to your dealership to indicate that it’s time for a tire rotation and then issue you a message reminding you to bring in your car for that service.
Or, imagine that you’re driving on a long trip and your car sends out a signal that it’s about time for lunch—based on either your past behaviors or the time of day. You receive a message informing you that one of your favorite eateries is coming up in a few miles, giving you time to adjust course and break for a meal.
While these simple ideas sound interesting and offer a great deal of potential, there are also some privacy concerns that have been raised with the prospect of these smart cars reaching the market. The biggest concern is that there are few federal or state laws that regulate the information that can be collected, or how it can be shared or used.
A New Wave of Intrusion
As a society, we’ve too quickly grown accustomed to having private businesses, developers, and marketers gain access to our information. We have learned to accept that no matter what we do today, there’s going to be some company mining our information for its own purposes.
Sure, it might be nice to get a message from the dealership or mechanic informing us that our cars recognize an issue that needs to be addressed. It might also be convenient to have a list of food stops coming up without having to make that request every time we’re hungry.
Where it gets tricky is when the police and other law enforcement agencies to tap into your car’s “smart” database using that same technology.
If you paused when you read that and began to wonder exactly what law enforcement agencies could gather from your personal information, you’re not alone—but you’re also not in the majority. But then again, most people don’t consider that common traffic maneuvers, like going 60mph in a 55 mph-zone or rolling through stop signs, are illegal.
Imagine weaving through traffic because you’re running late. If your smart car has a video camera system on board, it’s possible that law enforcement could check in on your driving habits, including your top speeds and your exact location, in order to issue you a ticket. It sounds excessive, but with the growing inclusion of smart technology in cars, it’s not entirely out of the question either.
The Connection Begins
Eleven percent of cars manufactured last year are connected to the Internet. More than 60 percent of all vehicles that will be manufactured by 2017 will be connected to the Internet. In North America and Europe, that percentage is expected to reach as high as 80 percent according to the Washington Post.
That’s an incredible percentage. But without laws to address this new wave of connectivity, who knows what the limits will be on what government agencies can do with the information these systems gather?
Worst Case Scenarios
In the worst case scenarios governments, private companies, and other people could use this data to monitor your driving habits. Insurance companies could potentially spy on you while you’re driving: recording data about your speeding, braking and other habits in order to determine a ‘fair’ rate for your car insurance.
Police across the country could simply tap into every registered vehicle that has this capability and send out speeding tickets whenever you break the law. They could even use on-board cameras to see who’s driving.
Federal agencies could track your vehicle if they have some suspicion about you, and if you cross state lines while committing a crime—for example, buying fireworks from one state and bringing them to another—they would have all the authority they need to pull you over and arrest you.
That may seem farfetched for those who give their government agencies the benefit of the doubt, of course. But the reality is: the capabilities are there.
But beyond the potential for government intrusion, there are the hackers and criminals. If your car is connected to the Internet—and, really, the computer systems on board control just about every facet of the car’s operation—why wouldn’t an experienced hacker be able to break into your car’s computer and shut down the engine whenever they want?
You could be driving home from work, turn down an isolated road to save some time, and become the victim of auto theft without being able to do anything about it. These thieves could potentially even scope out your vehicle while you’re shopping at the mall, send a signal to your smart car to open the doors, and start up the engine for a quick and easy getaway. They could easily use the information stored in your car’s system to find out where you live.
Some might think that this is all an alarmist position, and yes, some of these scenarios point to possibilities that are not likely. But unfortunately, recent revelations about the PRISM program haven’t inspired much faith in the government’s ability to let private information stay private. The bottom line is that, as of yet, there’s no sweeping legislation that determines how the information generated by smart cars will be used and protected.
Smart cars will transform our lives, and for the most part it will be for the good. But it’s also a good idea to remain vigilant about the kinds of information can be shared, and with whom. Always keep in mind how important it is to protect yourself, your identity, and your rights—no matter what kind of technological innovations come around the next corner.