Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The new cars we are buying today are a lot more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago. Ever-advancing technology has made them safer and more convenient to drive. But the cost for innovation goes beyond higher sticker prices. Privacy advocates say many new car owners are having to put their personal information on the line.
Data collecting machines
Open a new car and you will find much more than an engine, transmission and battery. New cars come equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mapping services, emergency roadside assistance, scores of sensors, cameras and computers. All that and more has transformed our cars into data-collecting machines, and that has privacy wonks nervous.
Modern cars are equipped with dozens of computers and scores of sensors that collect data about the vehicle's various systems, as well as trips.
"Definitely comes with a lot of risks in terms of the data that's collected by these vehicles," said associate professor Sean Lawson of the University of Utah Communications Department, who researches issues dealing with cybersecurity. "And especially the way that data is shared and sold between different data brokers and some of the potential nefarious uses for that information."
From the moment you unlock the car, the data recording starts: Is your seat belt latched? Headlights on? What's playing on the entertainment system? Are you hitting the brakes? How fast are you going? Where are you going?
"If you can start gaining a potential picture of where people go on a regular basis over time, you can begin to learn a lot about them," Lawson said.
Up for sale: Your driving data
In some newer car models, data about your trip is transmitted to the manufacturer and from there to companies called "vehicle data hubs" which sell it. The information is valuable to city and traffic engineers as well as folks who build mapping programs. It is also valuable to insurance companies and advertisers and bad guys.
Collected data frequently ends up in the wrong hands. There have been countless reports of data breaches ending with our personal information for sale on the dark web and foreign governments recording our movements through our phones and apps.
"This kind of information can be used to essentially micro target small groups of people that fit a very niche demographic, and those folks could then be targeted with messaging or intimidation," Lawson explained.
What about rental cars?
It's not just the car you own that collects data on you — it could be a buddy's car or a rental. If you pair your phone with a car's Bluetooth system to make hands free calls, get directions, or listen to road trip playlists, the car's infotainment system can pull in a lot about you.
Car infotainment systems often pull in phone numbers, contacts and call histories once paired with phones.
To see that for ourselves, the KSL Investigators rented the most basic model of car available from a local rental company. It was still adorned with many modern bells and whistles. And sure enough, from the moment we turned it on, we had personal information of people who had rented it before me. We found the car's infotainment system stored phone numbers, call histories – even 865 contacts from my phone, despite the phone's Bluetooth turned off.
"They are not deleted when you turn that car back in," warned Lawson.
Guarding your privacy from your car
Congress has been cracking down on data collecting. Phones, social media, and apps have been in the crosshairs. But so far, not much focus has landed on connected cars.
"Current laws do provide some protection for data collected from vehicles, mainly, that's collected by directly plugging into the vehicle," explained Lawson. "But a lot of these new technologies don't actually go through that (infotainment) system. So, there's definitely some work that needs to be done there in terms of expanding those laws."
Lawson says there's very little opportunity to opt out of your car spying on you, but if all this data collection disturbs you, you can try to minimize it.
Research how a car's infotainment, navigation, and roadside assistance systems work, and what data they feed on. Also, Lawson suggests counterespionage: If the car's computer asks who you are, or for your name or email address, don't provide it or use a fake.
"It ups the level of work and dedication that a marketing company or criminals or someone with more nefarious intent is going to have to put into figuring out whose data that is, sort of de-anonymizing it," he said.
It is either that or forgo the modern niceties by not connecting your phone to your car.
Or, if you are really worried, find a used car lot and get yourself something reliable with an old-fashioned AM/FM antenna and paper maps folded up in the glove box.
If you are renting a car and you connected your phone, be sure to wipe your data from the car's system before you return it. Apps such as Privacy4Cars can help you wipe data from unfamiliar vehicles like a rental car.