On-Board Technology in Vehicles Becomes Latest Privacy Battlefield

DETROIT (Detroit Free Press/MCT) —

As the nation and world struggle with ever-more-complex questions of privacy related to personal data mined from the internet, Ford Motor Co. found itself trying to assure the public last week that it doesn’t use on-board technology to spy on driver behavior.

Trying to put out a brush fire ignited by a Ford executive’s comment, the automaker said laws are needed to protect driver privacy in vehicles that can gather as much data as a smartphone.

Two weeks ago, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ford marketing head Jim Farley sparked a fury among privacy advocates. During a panel discussion, he said, “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. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.”

On Wednesday, Ford CEO Alan Mulally received a letter from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, seeking more information on the data Ford collects and how it is used. In 2011, Franken proposed a law to protect the privacy of location data in mobile devices.

Mulally plans to respond to Franken by early February, as requested.

“What (Farley) said was not right,” Mulally told reporters on the sidelines of the North American International Show. “We do not track the vehicles. That’s absolutely wrong. And we’d only send data to get map data if they agree that that’s OK to do that; but we don’t do anything with the data – we don’t track it. And we would never do that.”

With data breaches now seemingly common, the debate over how and when collected auto-related driving data can be used is likely to intensify. Vehicles produced by Ford and other automakers, as well as myriad mobile devices, can receive and send massive amounts of information. Black boxes capture detail on the car’s performance, while modems and smartphones transmit information to and from the cloud.

The technology that allows for such voracious data-gathering can be used for good purposes. Knowing a car’s location can be lifesaving when it alerts emergency services to an accident. Police can track dangerous criminals.

But consumers don’t want their driving patterns sold to marketers, their vehicles’ speed fed to local law enforcement or their lives subject to arbitrary privacy invasions.

“People are hyperaware and reactionary about data,” said technology analyst Doug Newcomb of Newcomb Consulting in Portland, Ore. “It is good that the issue is coming to the forefront.”

There is a confusing array of rules and regulations at various levels of government. Much like phones or credit cards, personal data belongs to the car owner. But in today’s world, everything is subject to subpoena should a judge deem it pertinent in a legal matter. Data from black boxes, for example, are often used as evidence in lawsuits arising from car accidents.

“It’s just really important that we have boundaries and guidelines to operate,” Mulally said. “Our homes, the cars, everything is going to be on the internet. Everything’s going to be connected. So what are the guidelines?”

While Ford acknowledges each driver owns the data a vehicle collects, the company seeks permission to store a copy of the information. Ford’s Sync services, for example, use an electronic consent request on the website used by subscribers.

Such consents are rampant in today’s connected society. Almost every app consumers download asks for consent. Most people usually click the “I agree” button without reading the terms and conditions. Legally, that consent gives companies the right to scour phones and dump terabytes of data into storage.

The auto industry has installed modems in vehicles and enabled phones to access safety features such as accident alert, locating stolen vehicles, unlocking doors remotely and navigation help. The same systems make it easier to make calls, receive texts and play music.

But the world has become more sensitive to privacy in the wake of revelations of U.S. government spying. Former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents showing massive amounts of information are routinely gathered from people’s phones, email and other sources.

Ford is not the first automaker to land in hot water on this issue.

General Motors’ OnStar system generated controversy in 2011 when stories broke that new terms of service allowed the automaker to continue tracking OnStar customers even after they stopped subscribing. Three weeks after the outcry, the terms were changed.

In 2011, a report into the issue by the Government Accountability Office found all carmakers collect location data and share it with third parties that provide services to the car owner.

Authors of the report also concluded that some privacy policies are confusing, yet there were no indications automakers were abusing the data inappropriately. The GAO report made no recommendations to federal agencies.

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