Privacy in your vehicle? -


Privacy in your vehicle: The info that's collected and who can access it

Very few of us would be comfortable with someone knowing our every move, but privacy is a tradeoff. We give little bits of information about ourselves in exchange for security or convenience, but the amount of information out there may surprise you. Could it be that even our cars are spying on us?

Driving is the time most of us can unplug to be alone with our thoughts. But these days, we are rarely truly disconnected, and all that convenience comes at a cost.

"If you chose to do these things, you will lose a lot of your privacy," said Dr. Adel Elmaghraby, computer science and computer engineering chair at University of Louisville's Speed School.  Elmaghraby said to think of your vehicle as a complex network of computer systems.

"They evolved from just one unit to multi units, then they became networks of computers within the car," Elmaghraby said. "Then came the GPS, came the entertainment systems, came the cell phones. They all became connected to the same network."

Just who has access to that network is hard to say. Elmaghraby said in general, the network is not locked down through security systems that we're familiar with on our home and work computers. He said experiments at some universities have demonstrated that vehicles are vulnerable to hacking.

"Someone could drive by your car or send your car messages which could, in a sense, make it appear like you are doing it," Elmaghraby said. "It could affect what your car is going to do. Maybe efficiency, maybe even if the car is moving, it could force it to go to a different direction."

A "drive-by hacker" could also access information that your car has stored in its computer systems.

"Everything we do is being collected in some sort of electronic database," pointed out UofL Law School Professor Michael Losavio.

Losavio said many of us have invited complete strangers into our cars without even knowing it through what's technically called telematics: location and emergency systems like GM's OnStar or Toyota's Safety Connect.  It could provide a world of information about you.

"If someone gets access to your GPS track," Losavio said, "they can see that you went to an oncologist's office. So now they know that there's a pretty good chance that you're being at least examined for cancer, and that can have huge repercussions on a person's life."

You may be saying, "Well, I don't have GPS systems, so this doesn't apply to me." But chances are if your car was made in the last 10 years, what you do have is something that is commonly called a "black box." Its real name is "event data recorder," and it's used in the event of a crash. The government is considering making them mandatory.

Just who should have access to information recorded by EDRs is still a fierce debate.

Nate Cardoza, a staff attorney at the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said there is no limit to the amount and type of information these recorders collect or how far back that information might go.

Your car records a wide variety of information in its power train control module or electronic control module when the check engine light comes on and it's time to go to the mechanic. The government made it mandatory in many vehicles made after 1996 in a program requiring On Board Diagnostics, a computer system built into your car.

Losavio said once you give that information up when it's accessed by a dealership or a mechanic, you no longer control who has access to it, including insurance companies and law enforcement.

"What if they go to the dealership and say, 'Can we see all of the records regarding what this person has been doing with their car?' The dealership can say, 'Well, sure,'" according to Losavio.

As with so many things that involve rapidly evolving technology, lawmakers need to act to outline who can collect that information, what they can do with it and whether they can sell it to third parties, Losavio said.

"I think if you know that people are monitoring you, you can make that decision," Losavio said.

Until then, Elmaghraby says the best advice may be to play it safe even in what you believe is the privacy of your own car.

"Only do things that you are willing that the whole world will know," Elmaghraby said.

Copyright 2014 America Now. All rights reserved.

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