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How to guard against Big Brother

No matter which side of the "convenience vs. privacy" debate you come down on, rest assured further technological advances will continue to stir the pot of controversy. But also, don't forget there are things you can do to protect yourself.

Today, auto gizmos such as global positioning systems and easy-pass toll tags primarily are controlled by consumers themselves. But proposals are cropping up in California, Oregon and other state legislatures to use this technology for generating highway upkeep money and more.

Say hello to the mother of Big Brother, who could well be arriving soon, according to privacy experts who fear legislation could lead to the advent of scary things such as:

  • Requiring every car to have a GPS system, so the state can track road use and tax accordingly.
  • Hooking up all cars to an electronic system, so speeding between point A and point B would result in an automatic traffic ticket.

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"There's potential for these mandatory systems tracking everybody," says Jay Stanley, communications director for the technology and liberty program of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Taking steps to help ensure your car is a private place may soon be just as important as gassing up for the trip. If you want to hit the open road -- or just zip up to the corner convenience store -- without concern about being watched, here's how to go about it:

  • Scan for "bugs." Look in your car's manual or check in with the manufacturer to find out whether you've got a black box. This safety enhancement device, also known as an event data recorder or a crash data recorder, is found in most newer cars (California requires event data recorders be disclosed in car owner's manuals). Privacy proponents point out that, because a black box monitors speed, seat belt use and other driver behaviors before a crash, attorneys have started to use its data in lawsuits.
  • Shop wisely for auto gadgets. Is there a way for you to turn off the technology? Does the manufacturer have a privacy policy? These are two questions Larry Ponemon, chairman of the privacy and ethics think tank Ponemon Institute, suggests asking.
  • Rent with caution. Rental car agreements may come with privacy strings attached. Cross a state line, speed or otherwise stray from that contract, and your wallet may be emptier than you bargained for. "Ask just what sort of monitoring is being done and how it could affect the bill," advises Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
  • Speak up. "These kinds of privacy questions are often not solvable on an individual level," says Stanley. Givens suggests getting involved in the public policy process by contacting legislators. Good policy can help ensure that consumers know what's in their cars and can disable devices that do exist, and also make sure that data collected by these devices aren't available to use without the owner's permission or a court order. And Stanley adds, "With good, robust privacy policies, we can enjoy the benefits of amazing new devices like GPS without having to worry about the dark side."

Melissa Ezarik is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

-- Posted: Feb. 15, 2005

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