Automakers Struggle to Address Privacy Issues in Era of High-Tech Cars

by on Mar.06, 2015

Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann demonstrates the OnStar technology at the Geneva Motor Show.

Like dozens of other manufacturers, General Motors’ European Opel brand had a hot new vehicle to introduce during the Geneva Motor Show press preview this week, its subcompact Karl model.

But Opel opened its news conference at Geneva’s PALExpo convention center with a more high-tech announcement, word that it would launch GM’s OnStar telematics service in vehicles sold in much of Europe later this year.

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The technology, proclaimed Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann, “transforms the car into a true part of the Internet of things.” But it also raises some of the same concerns consumers face on the Internet, including how to protect their privacy.

Long a place where a person could escape from the world, the outside has rapidly begun intruding into the passenger compartment, first with cellphones and now with infotainment and other communications systems. In the U.S. and Europe, for example, tests of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure systems – or V2V and V2I – are now underway.

The availability of OnStar on the Opel Karl helped kickoff a new discussion about privacy laws and today's high-tech cars.

A growing number of consumers have embraced the idea of having mobile access to smartphone apps, built-in WiFi and the safety and security promised by systems like OnStar.

But a very different issue turned discussion into debate when Jim Farley, then the top marketing executive at Ford Motor Co., told an audience at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show that the automaker “know(s) everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it,” thanks to the data collected by its OnBoard Sync technology system.

Farley quickly backtracked, days later insisting, “We don’t monitor (or) aggregate data on how people drive. I’ve given people the wrong impression. I regret that.”

But the fact is, with the onboard black boxes most cars now are equipped with and with the two-way capabilities of systems like OnStar, privacy has become “a big issue,” according to Jon Allen, a principal with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton who focuses on security issues. Precisely what makes such technology so compelling is why it is also so worrisome.

“Connected products provide customization and convenience because of the data they track,” said Allen. “Part of the great opportunity to improve the customer experience is producing a vehicle that ‘learns’ your habits and preferences. But that information must be protected.”

The issue has begun to garner attention in many countries, including the U.S. But it has become even more of an issue in Europe, where digital privacy has become a major public concern. Google, for example, recently was forced to offer Europeans a way to essentially become invisible to searches that might reveal embarrassing personal information.

A measure of just how strongly Europeans feel about the issue came during Opel chief Neumann’s news conference. Unlike the U.S. version of OnStar, the Continental system will include a “Privacy” button to let a user “choose whether they want to provide location information or not.”

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That choice would only be over-ridden after a crash severe enough to trigger OnStar’s emergency call system, Neumann explained. It’s designed to summon rescue crews in the event of an accident severe enough passengers might be disabled.

Today’s cars often have more digital technology on board than a typical home or office, and the trend is accelerating, with such things as autonomous driving likely to move from science fiction to everyday reality in the near future.

(Click Here for details how millions of cars are vulnerable to hackers.)

There have been experiments with marketing that could target motorists much as Google today can toss ads at a web viewer based on information revealed by hidden “cookies.” Imagine, they suggest, being able to send a McDonald’s ad and virtual coupon to a car driving near one of its restaurants around lunchtime.

While some drivers might embrace that possibility, others are appalled. And the potential to reveal more detailed personal information, as well as allowing a vehicle to be tracked, is raising flags on both sides of the Atlantic.

(To see more about Ford’s Jim Farley apologizing over spying flap, Click Here.)

In the U.S., an auto industry alliance recently agreed on an approach it called “Privacy Principles for Vehicle Technologies and Services.” Meanwhile, both the Federal Trade Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are exploring the issues – though in some cases, they are actually encouraging greater access, noted analyst Allen.

The issue is further complicated by the threat of hackers now believed to be spending more of their time looking at vulnerabilities in vehicle communications systems.

“At the end of the day, data belong to the customer,” said Barb Samardzich, Ford’s director of European product development. “So, protecting that data is crucial to us.”

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One Response to “Automakers Struggle to Address Privacy Issues in Era of High-Tech Cars”

  1. Jorge says:

    Anyone who wants Apple, Google or similar in their car might as well forget about privacy as it will not happen. But of course many people are clueless to auto safety and infotainment systems in their vehicles.

    What also concerns many people are the tracking black boxes being used and not just the ones that are two way reporting systems. I’m all for using technology to obtain crash data to improve safety but I don’t think we should desire tracking info. on exactly where people drive and when. It may be useful to convict criminals in some instances but it’s a little too much IMO.

    Car makers have been able to use onboard black boxes to prove siren chasers and their unscrupulous clients wrong in unintended acceleration cases. This is a good use of the black boxes. Unfortunately there is minimal punishment for the people who make the false claims of unintended acceleration so the media tends to run with the false story and rarely ever reports on the criminals who perpetuated the damaging, false claims or the lack of punishment.

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