Pri­vacy risk in self-driv­ing cars needs Se­nate fix

The House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ bill gov­ern­ing self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles has a hole in it big enough to drive an au­topi­lot Mack truck through.

The Mercury News Weekend - - OPINION -

The Se­nate has to close it when it tack­les its par­al­lel leg­is­la­tion later this month.

The fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle mar­ket is es­ti­mated to hit $87 bil­lion by 2030, which could ig­nite an­other tech boom to fuel the U. S. and Sil­i­con Val­ley economies for decades — but not if peo­ple are afraid to use the machines for fear of los­ing their pri­vacy. That’s what’s at risk in the fed­eral leg­is­la­tion.

The House bill passed by a unan­i­mous voice vote last week is gen­er­ally good.

The clear in­tent is to get self- driv­ing ve­hi­cles on Amer­i­can roads quickly and with na­tion­ally con­sis­tent over­sight, rather than go­ing state- by- state. But the loop­hole in the sec­tion deal­ing with pri­vacy pro­tec­tions is a po­ten­tial dis­as­ter for con­sumers.

Sec­tion 12 of the “SelfDrive Act” re­quires that man­u­fac­tur­ers de­velop a pri­vacy plan that out­lines what in­for­ma­tion is col­lected, how it is used and shared, and the ex­tent to which users have con­trol over the data col­lected from their ve­hi­cles by man­u­fac­tur­ers. That’s all good. But a pro­vi­sion of Sec­tion 12 vir­tu­ally elim­i­nates any pro­tec­tions.

It says, “If in­for­ma­tion about an oc­cu­pant is anonymized or en­crypted the man­u­fac­turer is not re­quired to in­clude the process or prac­tices re­gard­ing that in­for­ma­tion in the pri­vate pol­icy.” Say what? Ac­cord­ing to San Jose Rep. Zoe Lof­gren, the prac­ti­cal ef­fect is that if man­u­fac­tur­ers en­crypt the data, they are no longer re­quired to dis­close what is col­lected, how it is used, how it is stored or whom they share it with — even if they de­crypt it later.

That means the in­for­ma­tion from your ve­hi­cle could tell the man­u­fac­turer which stores you fre­quent and when — any in­for­ma­tion about your driv­ing habits that could be used for mar­ket­ing pur­poses, or any pur­poses for that mat­ter.

The leg­is­la­tion be­fore Con­gress is crit­i­cal be­cause it will fur­ther shape the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion’s non­bind­ing fed­eral guide­lines for those work­ing on self- driv­ing car tech­nol­ogy.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on Tues­day in­di­cated it would like to en­sure that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, rather than in­di­vid­ual states, have author­ity over reg­u­lat­ing self- driv­ing ve­hi­cles.

That’s a plus for the tech in­dus­try, which won’t have to worry about in­di­vid­ual states mak­ing con­flict­ing rules that will slow in­no­va­tion.

But be­sides clos­ing the pri­vacy loop­hole, the Se­nate should in­clude in its ver­sion of the law a re­quire­ment Cal­i­for­nia has passed re­quir­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers to re­port ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing self- driv­ing ve­hi­cles.

The House bill and Trump guide­lines make re­port­ing vol­un­tary, but that’s not enough.

Com­pa­nies whose cars are crash­ing willy-nilly will have no in­cen­tive to com­ply.

Hun­dreds of li­a­bil­ity and safety ques­tions need to be re­solved be­fore self- driv­ing cars and trucks are ready for prime time.

If the pri­vacy loop­hole and ac­ci­dent re­port­ing are ad­dressed in Con­gress, the law will pro­tect con­sumers while en­cour­ag­ing rather than im­ped­ing this world- chang­ing tech­nol­ogy.

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