Can the Industry Move Quickly Enough to Avoid a Moving “Big Brother?”

data privacy and the internet of things (iot): connected cars

As all sorts of devices are connecting to the Internet, there is a lot of industry excitement around the connected car. As automotive OEMs, Internet companies, telecommunications companies and others move to make the automobile yet another node on the Internet, the chairman of one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world, Martin Winterkorn of the Volkswagen Group, has called on the industry to make sure consumer data privacy is not forgotten in these efforts. Noting car makers already protect drivers from such hazards as hydroplaning, fatigue and traffic, Mr. Winterkorn called on manufacturers to also protect against government misuse of automotive data. “The car must not become a data monster,” (Mr. Winterkorn) .

Perhaps more so than any other connected personal device, the benefits and dangers of the connected car are readily apparent. The car can provide access to a wide variety of data about drivers and passengers which could be put to use in a plethora of useful services. Already many battery driven electric cars on the market use wireless connections to track the location of the car and provide recommendations for nearby charging stations. Possible future scenarios for the connected car include such things as automated “searches” for roadside services, such as gas stations and restaurants, based on the occupants’ preferences, curated music play lists accessed over the Internet which fit scenic drives and automated notifications to meeting participants that one of their colleagues will be late due to traffic problems. Yet, given recent revelations about governments accessing personal data from companies, it is easy to see how this sort of data could be an attractive target for such efforts, heightening drivers’, and Mr. Winterkorn’s, privacy concerns.

Privacy concerns around government surveillance of automotive related-data are not just an academic exercise. In the United States, many states fund road construction and maintenance through usage taxes from sales of gasoline and diesel. However, with cars and trucks becoming increasingly more fuel efficient and expanding numbers of electric cars which don’t even use petroleum fuels, these budgets are becoming harder to fully fund.  Oregon and Washington are amongst the states considering moving to a system where taxes would instead be levied based on the distances driven by a driver (more here). How to balance the public good of ensuring a large enough budget to maintain a smoothly functioning road system versus the potential for violating privacy is not a simple problem.

Ford and other manufacturers already have had in market systems in cars which allow smartphone based apps to work with cars for a while and Audi and Cadillac recently announced some of their 2015 models will have built-in LTE connections (more here). The privacy implications of this activity have not escaped regulators and an US Senator has already sent a pointed letter to automobile manufacturers asking them what they plan on doing about this (more here). The industry needs to move quickly to come up with a strategy to address privacy concerns and Mr. Winterkorn’s comments point out that there are powerful leaders within the industry who understand this urgency.

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