U.S. Automakers and the NSA – Peas in a Pod

Posted: Jan 15, 2014 9:12 AM

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.

A New York Times article on consumer privacy detailed technology available in the new Chevrolet Corvette. The story highlighted the whiz-bang technology that can visually record the driver’s point-of-view, in addition to recording noises or conversations taking place inside the car. Chevy claims this information, recorded digitally by a device inside the glove box, belongs to the consumer -- ostensibly designed to improve a driver’s performance driving.

As for transparency, the fact is that most vehicle data collection techniques are mentioned only in passing by manufacturers somewhere in the owner’s manual (if at all). Most consumers become aware this type of information has been or is being collected on them only when it appears as evidence in a civil or criminal proceeding against them.

“The privacy and liability issues associated with the [data recorders] are as real as with any archived data that can be used by or against individuals,” William Kohler, co-chair of law firm Clark Hill’s Automotive and Manufacturing Practice Group, told the New York Times.

Corporations are able to gather such troves of data largely because they are not bound by the same constitutionally-imposed limits on searches and seizures that limit government collection of information -- or which are supposed to limit government. Making the problem worse has been the unwillingness of the Congress in recent years to enact meaningful safeguards for the privacy of vehicle owners and drivers.

Under current law, there is little to stop corporations from turning over consumer information gleaned from vehicle black boxes to government agencies. In essence, the government can use third-parties corporations, like Ford, TomTom or Progressive, to collect vehicle data without restraint, then ask for or demand the data it wants. There does not have to be an imminent need for the data (you know, just in case) -- a key requirement for constitutionally-valid searches under the 4th Amendment.

Thankfully, consumer backlash against Verizon, Google, and other tech companies for their cooperation with NSA’s now publicly-known electronic snooping, suggests the public does have a threshold for how cozy private companies should be allowed to get with Uncle Sam. It remains to be seen, however, whether they actually will demand action to protect against the dangers posed their basic freedom, by such unfettered collection of data about what they do when they get behind the wheel of their car or pick-up truck.

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