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Is Big Brother your backseat spy? -- Page 2

Toll-booth speed-pass systems also incorporate the technology and can record a person's whereabouts. "Of course, 99 percent of the time it doesn't really matter," says ACLU's Stanley. "It becomes another data point on that individual. But on rare occasions, it could matter to you."

And sufficient privacy protections haven't yet been put in place, he adds.

Secondary use of RFID data concerns privacy consultant Smith, too. One example of "feature creeper" is in the Orlando, Fla., area, where, beginning in May 2005, roadside RFID readers will trace the travel time of individual cars, creating an average trip time that can be communicated to other drivers.

"Most people just think about the benefits of having [speed pass]," Givens says. But driver data could be connected to other records -- and the data have already been used in divorce and child custody disputes. Not to mention, the data also could be used to nab individuals for speeding.

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Global positioning systems
Divorce attorneys and private detectives wouldn't mind getting their hands on navigational system records, either. What better way to prove or disprove a spouse's location? Subscribers to GPS technology services have access to maps and driving directions as needed, and companies such as OnStar also offer stolen-vehicle and roadside assistance. OnStar call centers can even listen in on a car, should it be stolen or the driver needs help.

"Most people think that this is an excellent technology and it's worth money to pay for it," says Ponemon. "But you're basically providing information on where you are at any point in time. In safe hands that information is probably OK for each of us, (but) it can be used against people who may not want to reveal where they are."

"They kind of control your car," Smith says, noting that companies such as OnStar have no particular reason to spy on their customers, but in some cases they have been required -- under subpoena -- to provide that information." OnStar's privacy policy is upfront about stating that information will be used to respond to regulatory and legal requirements. In some cases, drivers don't even know they're being tracked through GPS. Law enforcement officials have gotten warrants to attach GPS devices to the cars of suspects, Givens says. While many might find that a desirable feature, a stalker could use GPS to keep tabs on a victim.

Some rental car companies have also used the technology, charging customers additional fees for speeding or exceeding certain boundaries. California legislation prohibits companies from using GPS without the customer's consent, and in Connecticut a court ruled that one rental car company's speeding fines were illegal. But experts say the issue isn't closed.

Risks and rewards
"There's no absolute right to privacy," Ponemon cautions. "None of this information, when it's collected, is absolutely protected."

And Givens adds, "The problem is that there will always be other uses found for [the data]."

And if the day comes where drivers rely too much on auto gizmos, a technology failure could cause havoc. As could an outright technology shutdown; the Bush administration has recently announced that the nation's GPS infrastructure could be turned off in the event of an attack, since terrorists could tap into the systems.

"I'd be afraid of technology that shuts my car off," Ponemon says, imagining that he's on a highway when someone pushes a button that could cause his car, which may be relying too much on technology-based systems, to crash.

Still, privacy advocates recognize the plus side of technologies that improve safety and enhance the driver's experience. "I think that the benefits outweigh the costs and the risk, but there need to be privacy and security safeguards," Ponemon says.

ACLU's Stanley adds, "Most technologies have good uses and we want to be able to [use them] without worrying about them being used against us."

Melissa M. Ezarik is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

-- Posted: Feb. 15, 2005

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