A strange question at first glance, perhaps, but it's
no coincidence so many new-car commercials show a solitary driver
escaping civilization along some lonesome desert, mountain or prairie
Americans love cars and one of the things they treasure
most is the privacy they provide.
But they also love convenience. And that clash promises
to bring strife to Americans' love affair with the automobile: Convenience
"What is a car? The freedom on an open road to
do as you please," says Beth Givens, founder and director of
Rights Clearinghouse. Larry Ponemon, founder and chairman of
Institute, which advises businesses and the government on privacy
and ethical information management, agrees. "It's a sacred
place where we can sing, we can make private phone calls. For the
most part people don't worry about their privacy when they're in
the car -- they're home."
But as technological gizmos, such as global positioning
systems, can make cars physically safer and more convenient, they
can make driving less safe from a privacy perspective.
"The freedom to travel is one of the most fundamental
freedoms in a democratic society, and that's something you should
be able to do without your every move being tracked," says
Jay Stanley, communications director of the technology and liberty
program of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Privacy advocates acknowledge the benefits of auto
technology while cautioning about their potential for privacy
invasion. Here's how some of today's electronic auto gadgets could
be used to interfere with your freedom:
The black box
Nearly everyone knows about flight data recorders
on airplanes, but news to many consumers is that most newer cars
have a similar device. These black boxes (aka, event data recorders
or crash data recorders) can capture vehicle speed, brake action,
shift position, engine speed, change of speed over time, airbag
deployment, seat-belt use and other data just before or after
On the pro side, black boxes accelerate safety by
providing information that experts use to improve cars and roads.
Also, simple knowledge about the device may be enough to get some
people to think thrice about risky driving moves.
What frustrates privacy advocates most is this:
"All of a sudden you're involved in a situation with your
car and you didn't know it was really spying on you," Givens
says, noting that attorneys and insurance companies are well aware
of the data and already are using it in legislation.
"Some car safety people are pushing for all
cars to be equipped with [black boxes]," says Richard M.
Smith, a privacy and security consultant. Smith says that adding
the devices is "not a big deal" from either a technical
or financial standpoint. "It's really a crapshoot; it's very
unclear who this helps," he says, pointing out that ownership
of the data and how it's interpreted (or misinterpreted) are potential
Money savings may convince consumers to give up
a little privacy. Through a Minnesota pilot program, some insurance
policyholders of the Progressive Casualty Insurance Co. allow
their driving habits to be tracked.
The tracking device, which spokesman William Perry
says doesn't actually involve a black box, records mileage, speed
and time of day. Customers willing to share that information can
save 5 to 25 percent off the cost of their next policy. It's all
in the name of accurate pricing, Perry explains.
Radio frequency ID chips
RFID chips allow everyday objects to "talk"
to each other.
"I'm very concerned about expansion of
radio frequency ID in cars," Givens says. "We could
literally be tracked everywhere we drive." Highway systems
are equipped with RFID signal readers, and tire manufacturers
have started implanting chips in tires to help spot failures and
track tires for recall purposes.
-- Posted: Feb. 15, 2005