Is your car spying on you?

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Car driving. Image courtesy of ShutterstockI don't know about you, but every time I open a newspaper I see an advertisement (or three) for the latest, greatest tablet, laptop or smartphone - each superior to last month's model.

Such rapid development in computing devices has its advantages of course, allowing us to work in new and more productive ways, as well as allowing for a huge amount of entertainment possibilities on the go.

But there is always a dark side. Unless you have been living under a rock, we're now all too aware of various entities taking advantage of the latest and greatest technology to get into every facet of our lives. Security agencies can intercept and read emails as well as track web surfing habits, and social networking sites know more about us than our best friends.

Fortunately, though, we can jump in our cars and drive off into the sunset without fear of being spied on. Right?

No, of course not. Many countries now have cameras on the roadside which can follow us wherever we go and now, on-board navigational systems are posing questions about driver privacy too.

Speaking at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday US Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, said that there needs to be a balance found between enhancing drivers' convenience and safety and their expectations of privacy, telling reporters:

The technology that's emerging raises questions, and we're going to be responsive to those questions.

But each technology is different, and each application of it is different, and we want to make sure that we're striking the right balance between helping folks be safe but also making sure that their expectations of privacy are also weighed carefully.

Foxx's comments come a month after a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report highlighted how car makers and GPS manufacturers have been collecting information about drivers' whereabouts via on-board navigational aids and then storing that data for varying lengths of time.

According to the report, companies can:

...track where consumers are, which can in turn be used to steal their identity, stalk them, or monitor them without their knowledge.

In addition, location data can be used to infer other sensitive information about individuals such as their religious affiliation or political activities.

US GAO - In-Car Location-Based Services

The GAO pointed out that all the companies within its report disclosed that they collect and share location data, but nine of them worded the disclosure statements in such a way as to be vague enough that consumers may have their data collected or shared in ways they were not expecting.

The report also highlighted that if motorists asked for their own travel data to be destroyed, they may be left disappointed as the companies concerned had no requirement to do so.

It also found that law enforcement agencies sometimes used information from these sources as part of crime investigation and that insurance companies could use owner-agreed black box data in order to determine blame after an accident.

In a statement Senator Al Franken, who requested the report, said that federal government needs to make it harder for web and car makers to collect drivers' location data:

Modern technology now allows drivers to get turn-by-turn directions in a matter of seconds, but our privacy laws haven't kept pace with these enormous advances.

Companies providing in-car location services are taking their customers' privacy seriously - but this report shows that Minnesotans and people across the country need much more information about how the data are being collected, what they're being used for, and how they're being shared with third parties.

Based upon its findings the GAO said that, "practices state that companies should safeguard location data, in part, by de-identifying them; that companies should not keep location data longer than needed; and that such data should be deleted after a specific amount of time."


Image of car driving courtesy of Shutterstock.

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15 Responses to Is your car spying on you?

  1. Ralph Haygood · 197 days ago

    I've never been inclined to buy new cars, because lightly used cars a few years old generally offer better value for money, but the recent proliferation of "connected cars" has strengthened my aversion. Eventually, it seems, I may have to become an antique cars enthusiast.

    • Bob · 196 days ago

      You can turn off the gps device, or uninstall it, from any car.

  2. TonyG · 196 days ago

    Your GPS does. On a cross channel ferry, I met a British guy with brown skin and a big beard. He told me how immigration once demanded he hand over his GPS so they could check that he had been where he said he had.

    So much for privacy and innocent until proven guilty

  3. G-Man · 196 days ago

    Any location law needs to include the carriers/app developers as well. Many people use their cell phone for GPS and that information is collected by the carriers and companies like Inrix. With a cell phone they have a better opportunity to know who is driving than an in car GPS that just reports the vehicle is moving.

    • Anonymous · 193 days ago

      And doesn't matter if you turn it off or not they can have it turned back on without your knowledge.

  4. Anthony Foxx is Secretary of Transportation, not Secretary of State for Transportation.

  5. MikeP_UK · 196 days ago

    Yet another good reason for not having an 'internet of everything'. Far too dangerous and uncontrolled. Would you want 'them' knowing everything about you and your daily life, even to when you get home or where you meet friends or when you last made 'whoopy' with your partner?
    Safest way is to not be connected electronically. You don't need to turn on the heating 5 minutes before you get home using your 'not-so-smart smart phone' - you just set the timer correctly.
    Manual control is safer and easier - and greener.

    • 4caster · 193 days ago

      No-one's interested in when you turn the heating on, so why keep it a secret? And even the smartest phone won't tell anyone whether you're making whoopee or having a tiff (unless you make a call in the middle of it).

      • Paul Ducklin · 193 days ago

        Actually, I'd imagine there are plenty of people who would be very happy to know your routine (and when you deviate from it), especially if they can work it out from a distance without having to sit outside your house in the street, "casing the joint."

  6. Randy · 196 days ago

    I've got a Garmin GPS unit in my car but I don't believe it's set up to transmit any information back to the satellite. These units are receive only units, right?

    • Paul Ducklin · 196 days ago

      GPS is satellite-to-ground only. A GPS unit can still transmit location data by other means (mobile phones with GPS capability are often set up do just that, acquiring your location via GPS and telling some service provider via 3G or Wi-Fi).

      But a GPS receiver is just that - a receiver. That's why they can be small enough to fit in a watch, whereas a satellite phone can't.

      • Andrew · 194 days ago

        But if you use something like "Live service" from TomTom, your device uses a gsm-connection to tell where and how fast you are driving in order to tell other users where they can expect traffic jams, and also to build a database of speed data on certain roads on certain times. So these units are not only receive units, but send units as well.

        • Paul Ducklin · 194 days ago

          Errr, that's why I wrote that a "...GPS unit can still transmit location data by other means" :-)

          The original question did allude to "transmitting to the GPS satellites," which doesn't happen.

      • ...SIRIUS-XM... OnStar... Ford SNYC... if your car has an IP Address then you can be tracked and Traced.

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.