Your car gathers more data about you than you think

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Cars are gathering more and more data about drivers, but where is it going?

In today’s digital world, personal data is easily accessible. From mobile devices and smart TVs to computers and popular websites, companies collect user information and often use it for their gain.

However, many people don’t realize their cars are also retrieving all kinds of data. In fact, as in-car technology advances, automobiles are gathering more information about consumers than ever before.

Driver Speed and Weight Detected

Many new vehicles come equipped with wireless transmitters that continuously collect information and send it to auto manufacturers. These transmitters can collect up to 25 gigabytes of data per hour.

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In a New York Times op-ed, President and Chief Executive of the Auto Care Association, Bill Hanvey, examines what kinds of details automakers can access.

Examples of facts obtained include how many passengers are in a car at a given time, how much a driver weighs, and how safely people drive. Once drivers plug their phones into the infotainment center, the issue compounds as vehicles can retrieve user contacts, communications, web browsing history, choice of music, and calendar data.

Unfortunately, how companies use this information and who owns it is unclear. The small print found on lease and ownership agreements often addresses data collection and usage. Additionally, automakers leverage specific details to improve auto safety and adapt to accommodate consumer driving habits.

Like other kinds of company-retrieved information, car-specific data is used for monetizing, often without a consumer’s knowledge. For example, tracking driving habits may prove valuable to insurance companies.

Furthermore, advertisers could send ad promos based on location data from places people visit or drive. Moreover, automakers could determine whether a mechanic outside their dealer network can repair the car. Plus, facts like oil life, fluid levels, and tire inflation are often crucial for car maintenance. Finally, by collecting specific information, auto manufacturers can ensure vehicle owners only use their repair shops.

Legal Considerations

The issue of who has access to car data has already appeared in courts. In Mobley v. State, the defendant was in a car accident. After the crash, police downloaded data from the car’s Event Data Recorder aka the car’s “black box” without a warrant. The unit tracks car size, seatbelt use, speed, and reams of other details before and after a collision. The police used the data to determine the defendant’s pre-crash speed. Armed with that information, officers subsequently slapped Mobley with a more serious charge.

Overall, the Georgia Supreme Court determined that the data downloaded by police fell outside of the fourth amendment’s warrant requirement because of the amendment’s “vehicle exception.” In the court’s view and citing a U.S. Supreme Court case from the 1920s, the vehicle exception states that officers do not need a warrant to search a vehicle for physical items. The court extended the vehicle exception to include digital car data.

As the ACLU points out, the number of loose physical items in an automobile is a far cry from the amount of digital information a vehicle gathers. Thus, the Fourth Amendment should extend to include data recorded and stored in cars, especially considering how the U.S. Supreme Court already found that police require a warrant to search phones seized during an arrest.

As auto technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, vehicle computers are keeping pace with phones and personal computers. Therefore, car owners should take measures to ensure they are protecting their privacy.