As automakers tap smartphone technology, concerns grow about use of drivers’ data

January 9

These days, your driving habits are largely a secret held between you and your car.

Very soon, your car may become a blabbermouth.

A series of deals announced this week between technology firms such as Google and automakers is bringing services previously aimed at smartphones right into the dash of cars that connect directly to the Web.

The growing alliance between Silicon Valley and Detroit has executives in both places excited over the technological and money­making opportunities. But the fast-emerging trend also has raised questions about whether consumers will be able to control the massive trove of personal data that cars are expected to generate in the coming years.

U.S. laws are vague about who can harness all that information. Can law enforcement use the data to prove that a driver was speeding? Will hackers be able to get personal data from Web-connected cars? Can consumers stop Google from tracking them as it seeks to sell targeted ads?

Consumer advocates say so far there aren’t clear answers.

“This goes to the heart of the focus of advertising in 2014, which is to get hyper-local data to target consumers on a much more invasive level,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. He envisions Best Buy or McDonald’s ads being served up to drivers just as they are blocks from the nearest store.

“At what point does someone get a chance to make a decision not to be tracked where you go, and don’t, where you bank and buy things?” he added.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show here, Google announced a slew of partnerships with carmakers including Audi, General Motors, Ford, Honda and Hyundai. Those deals will bring the Web giant’s suite of services to cars that connect directly to 4G wireless signals.

In new Audis slated to be at dealerships later this year, drivers will also be able to tell Google to check traffic for the fastest route downtown, make reservations at a favorite restaurant and send calendar invitations to dinner guests — even if they do not have smartphones.

A tablet, running Google’s Android operating system, will pop out of the dashboard. The device can be passed around so passengers can find YouTube clips and order songs and audio books from the Google Play store for the car’s entertainment system.

Prefer Dunkin’ Donuts over Starbucks? Google may be able to decipher that by driving behavior and deliver the appropriate ads to an e-mail account or smartphone.

Audi executives said they view the relationship with Google as crucial to the automaker’s future. Customers listed technology as the second-most important criteria in buying Audi vehicles last year.

The executives added that Google, not the automaker, would control any personal data generated by the car. And, they said, the information would be stored in servers, not the actual vehicles, to safeguard the data in case the car is stolen or sold.

Google declined to answer specific questions about how it would use geographic and other data about drivers and how that eventually could be used in advertising.

“This week we announced a joint effort between automobile and technology companies to bring Android into vehicles in a safe and seamless way,” Christopher Katsaros, a spokesman for Google, said in a statement. “We don’t have specific plans to share just yet but, as with any product at Google, we’re focused on the privacy and security of our users’ information.”

Privacy experts said Google has much to gain from tracking the way people drive. Smartphones can be turned off. And Google has limited access to what users of iPhones are doing. But a car running Google’s Android system could feed data constantly to the search giant.

Already, tens of millions of cars are outfitted with “black boxes” that continuously record data such as a vehicle’s speed, acceleration and seat-belt use. But the amount of information cars will produce by simply motoring down the street will grow exponentially as they become more integrated into the Web.

Privacy scholars say there are relatively few legal standards for how this data can be used, and the ones that exist vary from state to state.

Police want black-box data from crashes if it can be helpful in criminal prosecutions, while insurance companies can use it to assess what happened at an accident as they settle claims. Also, lawyers sometimes review black-box data when trying to decide whether to take a case.

As a general matter, law enforcement officials can access it through subpoenas or, in the case of insurance companies, through fine print in contract provisions that few consumers ever read.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies need a warrant to use a global positioning device to track a suspect’s movements, but that ruling does not speak to information generated by Web-connected vehicles.

“As with cellphones, what private companies do with that data and what government does with that data can be pretty shocking. People are vaguely aware of it, but most people don’t seem to care in terms of modifying their personal behavior,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University and a lecturer at Stanford Law School.

Dorothy J. Glancy, a law professor at Santa Clara University who focuses on privacy issues, said people would be concerned if they better understood the power — and implications — of the data their cars generate.

They may not care if, say, their insurance company wanted to receive an electronic feed of their driving habits. But they might if they knew that information could mark them as an aggressive driver who warrants more police attention.

“At some point, telling people what the system is and asking them to consent is not very good privacy protection because these systems are complex and people do not understand what they are being told,” Glancy said.

Much of the data that Web-connected cars generate may seem mundane — the route someone takes to work, where they are at a certain time, whether their car needs a tire alignment or more coolant — but they can be lucrative to companies in the business of closely targeted marketing.

“If you are a business that provides services to someone in that car, you have a captive audience for an hour a day,” Smith said. “Think about how much anybody would like to have a captive marketing audience for an hour a day. It is a gold mine.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said the federal government needs to make it harder for Web and car companies to collect location data on drivers.

“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,” he said in a statement this week. “It’s just commonsense that all companies should get their customers’ clear permission before they collect or share their location information.”

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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