car data collection


Your Car Knows a LOT About You

January 3rd, 2024

This site typically focuses on privacy as it pertains to (or how it is undermined by) our phones, tablets, and home computers. Devices, some of which are small enough to fit your pocket. But an alarming article in the New York Times points out the threat to privacy by another—much bigger—device: our cars.

We’ve written about this before, but given how much time we spend in cars and how much data they collect, we thought it worth another visit. As the article put it, “A car, to its driver, can feel like a sanctuary. A place to sing favorite songs off key, to cry, to vent or to drive somewhere no one knows you’re going.

“But in truth, there are few places in our lives less private.”

The amount of information your car collects about you can range from the relatively benign—like tire pressure—to the potentially intrusive—like your precise location and whom you call through the car’s Bluetooth system. The Times refers to this study by Mozilla that rates the privacy policies and data-collection practices of top car manufacturers. None of them come out looking particularly good.

If your car was made in the last few years, here’s a breakdown of the kind of data it’s likely collecting about the person driving it (that’s you):

Driving habits: This includes your location data (via GPS), speed, acceleration, braking, cornering, and even how often you use features like cruise control. This paints a detailed picture of your driving style and routines.

Vehicle performance: Sensors monitor various aspects of your car’s health, including engine temperature, fuel consumption, tire pressure, and even wear and tear on components. This data can be used for preventative maintenance and diagnostics, but it also creates a profile of your car’s usage.

Infotainment system: If your car has a connected infotainment system, it may collect information about your music preferences, navigation history, phone calls made through Bluetooth, and even voice commands you use. This can reveal your interests, frequent destinations, and even snippets of your conversations.

Onboard diagnostics: Modern cars have sophisticated onboard diagnostic systems that can record detailed information about any malfunctions or error codes. This data can be helpful for repairs, but it can also be used to track your car’s performance and potential issues.

Additional factors: Certain features like driver-assistance systems, cameras, and even connected windshield wipers can gather additional data depending on their capabilities. This could include footage of the road ahead, information about surrounding objects, and even environmental conditions.

Sharing and usage: It’s important to note—really, really important—that the data your car collects may be shared with different parties, including the car manufacturer, third-party service providers, and even insurers in some cases. How this data is used and protected can vary, so it’s crucial to understand your car’s privacy policy and adjust settings accordingly.

That said, there’s not a whole lot we can do about this. In some cars, disabling information-gathering features can block useful services like requests for emergency response. The authors of the Mozilla study suggest the best thing to do is spread the word about car companies’ data-collection and lobby for industry-wide changes. Daunting, yes, but a worthy cause.

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