Bob Barr

Progressive Insurance wants its insurance agents to take a 30-day ride-along with its customers. While the agents themselves are not physically in the vehicles, the Progressive “Snapshot” device -- which functions much like a car’s Event Data Recorder, or “EDR” (also known as a “black box”) -- constantly monitors and records every move a driver makes; including how often drivers slam on the brakes, how many miles they drive, and how much time they spend driving at high-risk hours (Midnight to 4:00 AM). Progressive claims collecting such data will save money for “safe-drivers,” but in actuality it is simply a way for the company to easily identify risky drivers -- all from voluntary participation!

The notion that drivers “voluntarily” reveal their driving habits is more myth than fact in today’s internet-wired world. The reality is that American drivers have little clue as to what data is being collected on them, who is able to access the data, and how it is eventually used.

Automakers are a tight-lipped bunch when the discussion turns to the data collected by the products they manufacture. However, in a rare example of frankness on the subject, Ford Motor Company Global Vice President of Marketing and Sales, Jim Farley, put it bluntly during a recent trade show panel: “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.”

Not surprisingly, Farley’s boardroom bosses at corporate headquarters immediately dismissed his comments, claiming the company “is absolutely committed to protecting [their] customers’ privacy.” The corporate big wigs stressed Ford does not “track” customers, and that “no data is transmitted from the vehicle without the customer’s express consent.” Such assurances ring hollow. In fact, the very words used by Ford to diffuse Farley’s comments actually confirmed that vehicle owners neither really know nor control the data collected by their vehicles’ black boxes.

Moreover, a recently-released report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sheds much-needed light on this developing controversy. The report, commissioned by Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, notes that massive quantities of data are being captured and shared by the vehicles we operate, and that consumers have virtually no knowledge or control of the process.

Bob Barr

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 -2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990.