Is your connected car invading your privacy?

Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto are just two of the ways that our vehicles are generating information – data that could be worth billions. Major concerns remain around what data is collected, for what purpose and who gets access to it

CarPlay: access to data should be about making driving better, not about playing Big Brother

CarPlay: access to data should be about making driving better, not about playing Big Brother

 

The 2010 Roman Polanski film The Ghost is a political thriller based on the novel by Robert Harris. In the film the satnav in the BMW X5 driven by one of the characters plays a significant part in the plot, as it leaves a crucial electronic trail behind. All that was needed was someone with the know-how to access it. This invasion of privacy is fictitious. But as the level of in-car connectivity increases, it raises questions about who owns the data in our cars.

Right now there is no overarching control of the data generated or any common agreement on its management. Manufacturers are respecting existing data-privacy laws, and European Union regulators are working to harmonise legislation. In the meantime major concerns remain around what data is collected, for what purpose and who gets access to it.

The data continuously produced by a vehicle falls into two broad categories: personal data and manufacturers’ data. Separate issues arise around each. Personal data reveals what apps are being accessed on the go, whom we’re phoning and where we’re going. Manufacturing data gives functional information about how a vehicle is working – its fuel consumption, for example.

The personal data is particularly valuable. It has the potential to generate billions in ecommerce sales, and car companies want a piece of it. General Motors estimates that it could make $350 million over three years from data collected in its vehicles. On the flip side, carmakers don’t want to share manufacturing data, as it goes to the heart of what makes a Ford a Ford or an Audi an Audi.

“Privacy is of utmost concern”

“Increasingly, in the world of telematics and connected car, data is currency,” says Mark Boyadjis, an infotainment technologies specialist at the business analyst IHS. “Data and information are the currency that both benefit the end customer and also the carmaker, and they need each other. For example, how might a car company help you find your stolen car if you don’t want to give them access to your vehicle’s information? It defeats the whole purpose. However, privacy is of utmost concern, and ultimately most carmakers agree that personally identifiable data is in the sole ownership of the end user.”

With Google and Apple now playing key roles in the provision of connected-car technologies across multiple vehicle manufacturers, there is a certain anxiety about having these data wizards in the mix. This has led some carmakers to restrict the amount of data being shared with their technology partners. On a consumer level, manufacturers such as Jaguar have made it clear that the power rests with their customers.

“We have built-in telematics in all of our vehicles, but it is an opt-in technology. If you don’t want to use it you don’t have to,” says Mike Bell, connected-car director for Jaguar Land Rover.

Opel has announced that its OnStar connectivity system will be available in Ireland from September. It offers real-time emergency response, vehicle diagnostics and high-speed wifi. But mindful of Europeans’ desire for privacy, which Boyadjis says is more acute than Americans’, OnStar comes with a privacy button. That said, Opel has indicated it will release vehicle data on foot of a court order.

“The US Congress has enacted a driver privacy Act which helps to secure the data as the sole ownership of the end user,” Boyadjis says. “But, yes, there is a possibility that if a criminal act has been committed there could be ethical reasons why that data could be pulled out of the onboard system. It’s not like car companies and government authorities are going to be tapping into every single car on a daily basis. That’s in no way how GM or any of the others are approaching it. That would clearly be a violation of customer privacy, and I don’t think that would fly.”

For companies such as Jaguar, access to data is about making driving better, not about playing Big Brother. “The greatest benefit the connected car gives us is data to better understand the real-world usage of the car, which in turn may lead to us engineering our cars differently,” Bell says. “We run lots of customer clinics but all after the event. When someone is driving they’re doing a lot of tasks subconsciously, and being able to access this real-time data – which we would use only in an anonymised way – would enable us to improve the driving experience of our vehicles.”

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