The New Yorks Times’ “The Privacy Project” highlights all that is terrifying about our surveillance economy. We blithely throw away our privacy for the privilege of freely accessing mountains of information about the things we want to buy, the celebrities and teams we follow or support, or to get directions home.
Thousands of applications are tracking our movements via our smartphones – a reality we are more or less comfortable with since we can control that access using our privacy settings. Still, we hear about apps that continue to track and gather data long after we would have expected them to stop – and we have no control or visibility into how the information is being used.
The most telling trope in the latest installment of “The Privacy Project” – which appeared on-line a few weeks ago but just arrived in the physical paper last Sunday – demonstrates how the President of the United States could be tracked using data from the smartphones carried by his secret service detail. It’s a chilling illustration magnified by examples of massive data extractions regarding the movement of CIA personnel into and out of their offices in Langley, Va., along with satellite imagery illustrating similar movements for White House and Pentagon employees.
There are limits to what can be illustrated in a newspaper article, but the point is to demonstrate the ability to look at this data in the aggregate – more or less heat maps of masses of people – and individually – tracking a senior diplomat, military general or security figure all the way back to his or her home, for example. It’s enough to make you want to put your smartphone in the freezer with your car keys – or maybe wrap it in lead.
Car companies have been struggling to come to grips with the unique demands of privacy in the context of the operation of a motor vehicle. Every year, one or more car company CEOs step forward and assert their commitment to protecting the privacy of their customers. GM executives are fond of saying: “The customer owns the data.” The only problem is that the typical GM OnStar customer can’t get access to the data that GM is collecting – which renders “ownership” meaningless. The privacy game is played differently in the automotive industry and the stakes are higher.
Tesla Motors has set the terms of engagement for owning a Tesla. Owners are virtually obliged to share their vehicle information and, with that comes some level of privacy violation. Like the surveillance economy built by Google and Facebook on the foundation of freely shared information exchanged for economic value, Tesla offers a vehicle enhancement value proposition founded on software updates – which requires an always available wireless connection.
I moderated the keynote panel discussion at the Consumer Telematics Show preceding CES2020 in Las Vegas, where a senior executive from Karma, maker of a connected EV that competes with Tesla, noted that customers must agree to share vehicle data to take delivery of their Karma. No sharing, no vehicle.
The requirement sounds onerous for two reasons. Firstly, the average car buyer sees their vehicle as a refuge and a source of freedom. A vehicle connection and a data sharing proposition suggests intrusion and loss of control.
The requirement is also worrisome because cars have yet to implement smartphone-like consumer controls for privacy and data sharing. A consumer driving a connected car cannot easily take him or herself “off the grid” – without driving beyond cellular coverage.
More importantly, car companies are increasingly being told that they must take steps to ensure drivers are paying attention. New requirements emanating from the European New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) call for a driver monitoring system capable of measuring percent closure (“perclos”) of eyes. In other words, within a few years drivers will begin to see cameras introduced in vehicle cockpits to ensure they are paying attention to the driving task.
Once driver monitoring systems are in place, though, driver identification and credentialling will follow rapidly – especially given the rapid integration of on-board e-commerce systems and personalized digital assistants. For me, it’s all okay and it all makes sense as long as the guiding principle is safety and collision avoidance.
Collision avoidance is a clear value proposition. I also want the peace of mind that my car maker can find me if it needs to notify me of a flawed or failing system in my car. Year after year car makers in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world have struggled to locate all of the cars equipped with potentially deadly Takata airbags that need to be replaced. Please, please violate my privacy to get me this urgent notification.
If on-board systems in my car violate my privacy, but do so in the interest of preserving my life, I am good with that. Of course, this is a step above and beyond the software update value proposition promised by Tesla and Karma.
Driving a car is a life and death proposition. To the extent that privacy violations are tied to safety, the automotive industry should represent something of an exception or require unique regulatory accommodations.
The implications are that companies working in the automotive space are entitled to some sort of special status – and I’d include in this equation mapping companies HERE, TomTom, and the likes of Mobileye, Google, Continental, Bosch, Harman, and others. At the same time, companies such as Apple, Mapbox, Waze, Facebook and others building their businesses off of crowdsourced smartphone data ought to merit extra scrutiny and, perhaps, more stringent regulation.
The New York Times’ “The Privacy Project” reveals the ways in which crowdsouced smartphone information can be used to manipulate and oppress entire populations or even individuals. Smartphone privacy violations are not occurring in the context of a life-saving value proposition. The value proposition is purely commercial and the individual user is the economic unit.
Auto makers will be increasingly violating the privacy of their consumers. It probably is time to give car owners the ability to manage and control their data sharing in a smartphone-like manner directly from the dashboard. And, soon, it will probably make sense to compensate drivers for sharing their information. But the focus for auto makers, first and foremost, ought to be safety – with an emphasis on the safe operation of the vehicle.