by Bill Snyder

How (and Why) Your Car is Spying on You

Jan 14, 20143 mins
Consumer ElectronicsPrivacy

Your automobile is very likely spying on you. But Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate are uniting to put a stop to unfettered snooping via the "black boxes," or "event data recorders," placed in your car by automakers.

Is your car spying on you? If the vehicle is a fairly new model it probably is, thanks to a “black box” that collects data about what’s going on in your car. And there’s no off switch or way to opt out. By September all new cars sold in the United States will be required to have black boxes, or as they’re more formally called, “event data recorders.”

“The amount of data that they record is vast. And it’s not capped,” said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).


It’s not black, but it is a black box, similar to one that’s likely in your car.

That’s just one way new technology installed in automobiles is invading our privacy. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week, Google and a handful of automobile manufacturers, including Audi, GM, Honda and Hyundai, announced a partnership designed to bring the Android mobile platform to vehicles. Those devices are capable of broadcasting your location, Web pages you may have looked at, stores you shopped in and much much more. Chevrolet, for example, showed off a camera mounted on the windshield that records the driver’s point of view and a microphone in the cabin records any noises made in the car.

After years of revelations about how the NSA, advertisers, Google, wireless carriers and many other companies are vacuuming up our personal data, you’d think the auto industry would be sensitive to the issue. But you’d be wrong. Consider what Ford’s top sales guy James Farley said at a CES event:  “We know everyone who breaks the law. We know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing.”

Farley quickly retracted his impolitic remarks, but they give you insight into how seriously some automakers take your privacy.

Meanwhile, the black-box-in-the-car issue has gotten the attention of the U.S. Senate, where (shockingly enough) senators from both parties plan to introduce legislation aimed at making sure black box data is controlled by car owners.

Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), with support from other Democrats and Republicans, were expected to roll out the Driver Privacy Act on Tuesday. The legislation guards a driver’s personal privacy by making it clear that the owner or lessee of a vehicle is also the owner of information collected by an event data recorder.

There will, of course, be exceptions, such as court orders, needs related to vehicle recalls, or emergency medical response in the case of cars equipped with advance automatic crash notifications system. When data is needed related to a recall, it will be scrubbed to remove personally identifying information.

The legislation does not address the growing problem of driver distraction due to the use of electronic devices. But ensuring that black box data is controlled by the consumer would be a rare privacy victory.

Image: USA Today