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Is Big Brother your backseat spy?

Is the latest auto technology a threat to your privacy?

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 road.

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 versus privacy.

"What is a car? The freedom on an open road to do as you please," says Beth Givens, founder and director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Larry Ponemon, founder and chairman of the Ponemon 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."

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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 a crash.

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 issues.

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.

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-- Posted: Feb. 15, 2005

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