Privacy advocates are wrong on connected cars

Privacy advocates are wrong on connected cars
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The Washington Auto Show is going on this week, where automakers are showing off a bevy of new models of connected vehicles that use their data processing and networking capabilities to provide enhanced convenience, efficiency, safety, and entertainment. However, some detractors see the wealth of vehicle data not as an opportunity for consumers, but as a threat to their privacy. They are wrong, and attempts to create special privacy regulations for cars will do more harm than good. 

The availability of more vehicle data will allow innovators to create new apps and services for connected vehicles that will benefit consumers. For example, on-board diagnostics systems — which come standard in vehicles — collect diagnostics data on many aspects of the engine. Until recently, most consumers had no access to this information and only saw a “check engine light.” However, aftermarket devices and smartphone apps now allow users to tap into this data to review diagnostic information, track vehicle stats, and better maintain their vehicles. Just as mobile app developers have used smartphones’ gyroscopes and accelerometers to create innovate apps that do initially unanticipated tasks, such as gauge sleep patterns, so too will car app developers use in-car sensors to create new services in unpredictable and beneficial ways. 

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While it is certainly important to address legitimate privacy concerns, policymakers should not let hypothetical fears drive the conversation in ways that unnecessarily limit commercial uses of vehicle data.

 

For example, many consumer advocates cite geolocation information as having a high potential for harm because, if collected over time, this information can reveal a detailed profile of an individual’s behavior (e.g., habits and routes). Advocates cite these concerns as a pretext for strict location privacy laws. Unfortunately, such rules would have detrimental effects on a wide range of services that use of geolocation data, such as real-time traffic alerts, remote control, roadside assistance, vehicle recovery, insurance, auto financing, and more.

The innovations from connected cars will only come to fruition if policymakers allow consumers and businesses to easily share vehicle data — a future many privacy advocates are trying desperately to stop. For example, consumer advocacy groups, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have called for restrictive privacy rules for connected vehicles. Similarly, in an article in the Washington Post entitled “Big Brother on Wheels,” Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, suggests that companies will use data to track an individual’s habits or sell it to unscrupulous companies or law enforcement agencies.

But there is no evidence that this is occurring. On the contrary, the auto industry has taken several steps to protect consumer privacy. For example, in 2014, automakers unveiled a series of public commitments establishing strict privacy standards for data collected from connected vehicles. The automakers even promised not to share consumer information without affirmative consent, a standard that is higher than those found in other industries. Other businesses, such as wireless services providers (e.g., AT&T or Verizon) and connected vehicle platforms (e.g., Google or Microsoft) have also made public commitments about how they use consumer data, and the Federal Trade Commission enforces these commitments using its “unfair or deceptive acts” authority to bring enforcement actions against any entity that has not kept its stated promises to consumers.

Self-regulatory processes, such as these, are often more beneficial to innovators because they provide a more flexible regulatory environment than would be found in one-size-fits-all rules imposed on all businesses and individuals involved in connected vehicles. Indeed, by ensuring automakers’ commitments are transparent and overseen by the FTC, policymakers can help prevent harmful limits on useful data collection, while still allowing automakers to adjust privacy controls to respect individual choice.

The Washington Auto Show is an opportunity to showcase the cars of tomorrow and educate consumers and policymakers about the innovations they will see in the years ahead. If privacy advocates get their way, getting an oil change will involve as much legal paperwork as going to the doctor. This is not the future most consumers want.

Alan McQuinn (@AlanMcQuinn) is a research analyst at the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.