Still think com­pa­nies aren’t min­ing your data? GM has al­ready done it.

Com­pany con­firms pro­gram of mon­i­tor­ing drivers’ ra­dio se­lec­tions for ad­ver­tis­ing data, but it’s cer­tainly not alone in watch­ing our habits


My son is car shop­ping, and he wants noth­ing to do with new cars. In fact, he’d like one about 15 years old. Why? He wants none of the track­ing, telem­at­ics or high-tech wiz­ardry em­bed­ded in newer cars.

Is he para­noid? Nope. He de­signs soft­ware. What he knows should make all of us pay far more at­ten­tion to how much in­for­ma­tion our ve­hi­cles are sharing, and stop be­ing daz­zled by in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems and other tech­nolo­gies that ef­fec­tively take your bed­room door off the hinges.

I think it’s too late, ac­tu­ally. And as long as the art of in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing con­tin­ues to be pro­moted as some­thing good and op­tional (“just ad­just your set­tings”), we will con­tinue to run to­ward shiny things while we sur­ren­der ev­ery last ves­tige of per­sonal pri­vacy.

GM re­cently an­nounced a pi­lot pro­gram that had 90,000 drivers in the Los An­ge­les and Chicago ar­eas opt in to have their ra­dio se­lec­tions mon­i­tored. The auto man­u­fac­turer made no bones about why. GM “wants to make money from un­der­stand­ing its drivers’ car ra­dio-lis­ten­ing habits.” I give them points for be­ing di­rect. I still wouldn’t sign up.

As re­ported last week in the Detroit Free Press, “In a three-month test, GM used in-car Wi-Fi to track the habits of some of its drivers in hopes of see­ing whether there is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween what drivers lis­ten to and what they buy.” They track what you lis­ten to and where you go in an ef­fort to tai­lor ad­ver­tis­ing. Ob­vi­ously, ad­ver­tis­ers will pay might­ily to tar­get ex­ist­ing or po­ten­tial cus­tomers, and the whole project is bank­ing on how sug­gestible we are.

Dr. Ann Cavoukian, a Dis­tin­guished Ex­pert-in-Res­i­dence at Ry­er­son Univer­sity and one of the world’s lead­ing pri­vacy ex­perts, says, “You have to ask so many ques­tions about this type of in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing, and de­ter­mine what is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing to your in­for­ma­tion.”

As with the GM pro­gram, many prom­ise to anonymize and ag­gre­gate your in­for­ma­tion: make it uniden­ti­fi­able and part of a huge trove. Cavoukian stresses the need for par­tic­i­pants to truly opt in, by ex­press­ing pos­i­tive con­sent, but also ques­tions how many peo­ple read the fine print to see how their in­for­ma­tion will ac­tu­ally be used. “De-iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion can be done poorly, or it can be done well,” she says. “Ask your­self what the ben­e­fit is to you, to give up this in­for­ma­tion.” Un­til se­cu­rity and pri­vacy is em­bed­ded in this tech, you re­ally have no sure way of know­ing what will be done with your in­for­ma­tion, now or in the fu­ture. Hav­ing your per­sonal in­for­ma­tion fly­ing around may be, at worst, an­noy­ing — you could be bom­barded by ad­ver­tise­ments — but my col­laps­ing faith in the world leads me to more sin­is­ter imag­in­ings.

The ben­e­fit to gath­er­ers is easy to see: they sell it. Worst (or best) ex­am­ple of this is Face­book, a com­pany that ba­si­cally sits on your lap watch­ing every­thing you type, knows every­thing you pur­chase, how you vote and who your fam­ily is. While this might pass the test of “what the ben­e­fit is” — I get to be so­cial and witty and post cat pic­tures — I re­main un­cer­tain why a car man­u­fac­turer know­ing if I lis­ten to rock­a­billy or rap ben­e­fits me.

When early talks of fully au­ton­o­mous cars started in earnest, a tech ex­pert with a car man­u­fac­turer sur­prised me with just how far ahead they were look­ing. We’ve all heard that full au­ton­omy will be safer, and get rid of traf­fic jams, and change the le­gal and in­surance worlds; he ac­knowl­edged those fac­tors, but was equally in­ter­ested in the ad­ver­tis­ing po­ten­tial. Ap­par­ently, with drivers hav­ing noth­ing to do, the plan is for ads to be pro­jected on ev­ery avail­able sur­face. We will be driv­ing in­side of bill­boards, with nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems of­fer­ing up burg­ers and hard­ware and sheet sets from the ad­ver­tis­ers who pay to be there.

Fol­low Cavoukian’s ad­vice: be re­quired to ex­press pos­i­tive con­sent to opt in to hav­ing your data har­vested, read the terms of ser­vice be­fore you give that con­sent, de­ter­mine and trust what will be done with in­for­ma­tion that is gath­ered, and fi­nally, un­der­stand what ben­e­fit you will de­rive. It may be hu­mor­ous to hear of per­sonal tech as­sis­tants like Google’s Alexa ac­ci­den­tally send­ing out per­sonal con­ver­sa­tions, but in­stead of chuck­ling, we should be tak­ing note.

A decade ago, the in­surance in­dus­try be­gan pro­mot­ing squeal boxes — sorry, telem­at­ics — that could track how you drove and thereby of­fer you, per­haps, a bet­ter in­surance rate. I was told they would not use the in­for­ma­tion to pe­nal­ize bad drivers, only re­ward good ones. I didn’t be­lieve it then, and I still don’t. Any en­tity los­ing money in one area will make it up in an­other.

I thought peo­ple were in­sane to trade their pri­vacy for so lit­tle money. But what I thought never mat­tered; ev­ery car has the equiv­a­lent built in now, so the whole con­cept of elec­tive buy-in on ve­hi­cle telem­at­ics is a moot point. What was very re­cently an ex­per­i­ment, a pi­lot project, is now out of your hands.

As Cavoukian says, “Trust, but ver­ify. Look un­der the hood.”


Car com­pa­nies are look­ing for ways to mine your driv­ing data.

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