Your Car Is Spying On You: How to Protect Yourself

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Big Brother is always watching. That’s what we’ve come to believe, at least in our online lives where our personal viewing habits are tracked and used by advertisers to try to sell us stuff.

But shutting down your computer and other electronic devices allows for a little private time, right? Well, not necessarily. Not if you’re driving in your car.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson discusses the ways in which your driving habits can be recorded and tracked. Check it out, then read on for more information about how you can protect yourself.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways your car may be spying on you.

EDRs

Nowadays, most new cars have an electronic data recorder, which notes what your car’s sensors are picking up about your speed, braking and other factors like use of safety equipment in the event of a crash. In essence, the EDR is your vehicle’s black box, recording what transpired in your car’s systems in the seconds before and during a crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, “EDRs do not collect any personal identifying information or record conversations and do not run continuously.”

While the data can be used to improve car safety, a recent article in Consumer Reports magazine also said:

Still, there is concern about the accuracy of the data, who owns it, and how it’s being used. The NHTSA says that it considers the information the property of the vehicle owner, and automakers say that the data is accessed only with the owner’s consent.

However, only 14 states actually have laws to protect the privacy of EDR information, CR says.

Telematics

Remote connection services, such as GM’s OnStar, Ford Sync and Chrysler UConnect, come with an array of benefits, like navigation services, vehicle tracking, roadside dispatch and assistance in the event of an emergency, diagnostic checks and remote updates.

But does it come at the expense of the driver’s privacy? Consumer Reports wrote:

Though EDRs capture only a few seconds of data, telematics systems provide a regular stream about a car’s location and other parameters. And it’s not clear what data is collected and what is done with it. Even automakers don’t seem sure about the best ways to use it.

Portable and mobile navigation devices

When you’re uncertain about the route to a particular destination, it’s second nature to power up the GPS on your dash or smartphone. While they definitely save time, your location information is being transmitted in order for it to work.

This transmission of data by GPS devices and telematics systems has prompted privacy concerns and has the attention of Congress.

The Kicking Tires blog reported:

At the behest of Congress, the Government Accountability Office audited privacy practices for 10 providers of navigation or telematics services in 2013: the Detroit Three, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, portable navigation providers Garmin and TomTom, and smartphone navigation developers Google Maps and Telenav. GAO interviewed privacy advocates, investigated exactly what those companies do with your information and compared it to industrywide best practices for privacy protection.

In a 32-page December 2013 report to Congress posted on Jan. 6, GAO found the providers fall well short of those practices.

Check out the blog post and the report for more details about the type of information that’s shared about your driving by these companies. Kicking Tires noted that the companies are acting legally and that no federal law governs these practices.

Insurance devices

Auto insurance companies have made it easier to save on car insurance. But there’s a catch: That discount of up to 30 percent could cost you privacy behind the wheel. Many of the leading car insurers, such as Progressive, State Farm and Allstate, provide a device that plugs into your car and records information like how fast you drive, how hard you brake and when you’re on the road. It’s called pay-as-you-go or usage-based insurance.

From our Solutions Center: How to quickly shop insurance

It’s also the source of privacy concerns. Ron Lieber of The New York Times wrote:

But usage-based insurance, as the program is known, generates vast amounts of data. While insurance companies are pledging to keep it to themselves for now, some experts believe that we’re only a few years away from companies’ contributing complete driver histories into a central industry database. Then, we’d all have driver scores like the numbers that FICO helps creditors calculate, which would follow us around whenever we shopped for a new auto insurance policy.

Lieber also noted that some insurance companies would like to start tracking where you drive.

Ways to protect yourself

Consumer Reports has some recommendations to protect your privacy, including:

  • Keep a low profile. “Don’t share self-identifying infor­mation such as your Facebook status or publicize your location on social media. Also, don’t store an address labeled ‘home’ in a navigation system; instead, store the address of a public place.”
  • Use your vehicle’s phone system with caution. “Don’t download contacts to the car’s phone system, and turn off the phone’s Bluetooth connection to the car when you exit,” CR says.
  • Skip automated tolls if you can.
  • Turn off your cellphone and remove the battery. Even if the phone is off, location data is still being transmitted, CR says.
  • Take your portable GPS with you. And if you sell a car with GPS, make sure your old data is no longer stored in the device.
  • Actually read the privacy policy before you sign up. 

What are your thoughts on these privacy issues? Are you concerned? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Karen Datko contributed to this report. 

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Comments & discussion

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  • Jason

    Turn off my phone and remove the battery? I’m not a fugitive from justice, I actually want to use my cellphone.
    Skip automated tolls? Again, I’m not a fugitive from justice. I’ll gladly exchange someone knowing when I use a toll road for the convenience of not carrying change with me and waiting in lines.

    The concern with EDR’s is not that the data cannot be trusted. The concern is that the data is accurate and could be used against a driver in the case of an accident.

    • Don Dunder

      No, the concern is I don’t trust the insurance companies with that data. Unless one wants to swallow and believe everything they say is right.

      • Jason

        What do you believe insurance companies will do EDR data? The data is the data, it will show what the car was doing in the seconds before the crash.

        • Don Dunder

          They will use any excuse they can to raise your rates. ANY excuse.

          The article up above says the information from this device is mine and is private. We’ll see how long that lasts.

          • Jason

            I depends on the state you live in. Only 14 states have laws that specify state information stored in the EDR belongs to the driver.

            Personally, I think that EDR data should be collected from all vehicles involved in an accident. EDR data is a non-biased witness to the events before and during the accident and that information should be available to help determine fault and set any civil or criminal penalties. Remember that EDR won’t always be used to prove guilt, it can also be used to prove innocence.

            I don’t support giving insurance companies access to EDR information during everyday driving. I don’t personally use the insurance company devices that take EDR data and relay it to the insurance company to set rates. I suspect I would save money if I signed up for the program but I don’t think the discount is worth being tracked continually.

          • Don Dunder

            Bottom line is I don’t trust insurance companies.

            A few years ago I was involved in a no-fault accident whereby both my car and another car were involved in a side-swipe because he was in my blind spot and I didn’t see him and he claimed he didn’t see me. Geico paid out on my end of the damage but then immediately dropped me after having been with them for 5 accident-free years with no other explanation. One accident that involved $2,700 worth of body damage.

            Again, it’s not the EDR itself but what we’ll be done with it that I have a problem with. That should be my information since the EDR is a physical part of the car and is my legal property.

            Never trusted insurance companies since, even though I’m required to have it. I consider them a necessary evil and don’t trust them at all.

          • Jason

            Not renewing coverage after an accident is standard procedure for insurance companies, especially if you have a ticket on your record in the past 3 years. You will also no be renewed if the insurance company is reducing the number of policies it writes in your geographical region. In that case any infraction, even a single ticket, will cause your policy to not be renewed.

            It is my understanding that there is no such thing as a no-fault accident. If two cars collide someone is at fault even if no one is ticketed by the police. One of the drivers can be wholly at fault or fault can be split between the drivers. If you paid a deductible the insurance company viewed you at fault.

          • Don Dunder

            The fault was split between insurance companies. And no, it’s not standard operating procedure for all insurance companies to drop you. It depends on which jerks you sign up with. Nowadays, I ask ahead of time whenever I switch policies. I didn’t used to, before.

            I’ve been driving for 20 years and on those rare occasions when I’ve been penalized for an accident, my rates went up about 15% – 25% Not happy about that, but understandable. But I’ve never been dropped before and my attitude towards them has changed significantly because of it.

            But why am I arguing with you. You seem to kiss their ass over this.

          • Jason

            So you had an at-fault accident and were dropped from your insurance company. Again, that isn’t uncommon today, I know lots of people that have had that happen.

            You definitely should check an insurance company’s policy before you buy. Some will allow you an at-fault accident without being dropped. Expect to pay more. Some will allow you to sign up for “accident forgiveness”, again at a higher rate.

            No, I’m not a big fan of insurance companies. My complaints deal with their attempts to pay less than replacement value (auto insurance) or denying covered items (medical insurance). The last medical insurance company my company used seemed to make denying covered items or paying less then the proper split standard practice. When I called they would apologize, claim it was a mistake, and pay the correct amount. Yet, they would do the same thing on the next bill.

  • Al Seaver

    I guess driving like you have some sense would be out of the question. I
    don’t know about big brother watching you, but you can be sure that if
    you are driving ahead or behind me, I’m watching you. I have dash cams
    in both of my vehicles looking front and rear. Pull a stupid stunt that
    my cam sees and I’ll gladly give the cops a copy of the video. There are
    too many people driving these days that really shouldn’t be given their
    extremely short attention spans, unless of course, they’re talking on
    their phone or texting. We all know that that always takes priority over
    everything else going on at all times.

  • Joseph Freitas

    Yea. Should I wrap my car in tin foil while I am it? Why the hell would I have GPS, bluetooth, and a cell phone if I am not supposed to use none of the stuff.
    I understand simple things like hey don’t broadcast your address to the world, but no contacts, remove the battery?
    If you want to keep writing here, stay off the drugs.

  • ohiogreg

    I don’t like the idea of a Black Box in my car. Either way Insurance companies are going to get you. They’ll find some way of not liking something about my driving (driving too much; I like to take country drives on my days off) or they’ll charge me more for not having a black box.

  • Scout

    Definitely concerned. They may not be misusing the data today, but once the technology is there they will find a way to use it to their advantage and against the consumer. Look at how the things we love like email, cell phones, landlines, and so forth have been exploited by the NSA. The world these products were developed in had scruples against information sharing. As the government found an appetite for our personal info those scruples were cast aside and palatable excuses were found to abuse our personal information. I have thought that it would be wonderful for a company to begin making durable, easy to repair vehicles as we had 20 years ago with no computers on board. I would definitely buy that. “They” couldn’t track us and I also have never found that the dealer software that automobile service stations use to perform diagnostics and repairs on vehicles are useful. I have twice been in the position where it was going to cost me a great deal of money to have the recommended repair made and as it turned out that isn’t what was wrong with my car so it would have been for nothing. This also happened to me on a washing machine. The diagnostic software said the water sensor was broken. They repaired it to the tune of $300 and when done the washer had the same problem. It turned out that the water to the machine was turned off. I worked for computer and telecommunication companies my whole life and I can tell you they aren’t totally reliable, they have never increased productivity for individuals or corporations, and they have cost us dearly in control over our personal information.

    • Jason

      “I have thought that it would be wonderful for a company to begin making durable, easy to repair vehicles as we had 20 years ago with no computers on board. I would definitely buy that.”

      You might buy one of these “simple” vehicles but most people won’t. The past isn’t quite as rosy a we like to remember. Yes, someone with the knowledge could repair older vehicles with simple tools. However, those vehicles were in constant need of repair and adjustment. Remember when a car lasting 100,000 miles was a big deal?

      I have a couple of simple old vehicles, a pair of Kawasaki KZ400’s from the 70’s. It seems like every time I want to ride them something needed to be adjusted. I also owned a 2002 BMW motorcycle for 12 years. If it had gas and a charged battery it started and ran. No fiddling with a choke or waiting to let it warm up.

      I have also have a 2005 Toyota Prius with 130K miles. I have done absolutely nothing to it besides add gas and perform the recommended maintenance per the schedule in the owner’s manual. The spark plugs didn’t even have to be changed until 120K miles and it still has the original brake pads. Try that with a “simple” car.

  • Kent

    Maybe they can figure out how to turn off the cell phones. Cell phone drivers are flat out the most dangerous thing on today’s roads. Every single accident should require the subpoena of cell call records.

  • Don Dunder

    Are EDRs mandated by the government? There’s no way to avoid having one if you buy a new car?

    • Jason

      EDR’s are not mandatory but 85% of cars sold in 2010 had them. Automakers have been voluntarily installing them as they can be used to prove that a crash was not caused by a mechanical failure.

      Just as an example, take an unintended acceleration case. A driver may claim they crashed because the car accelerated suddenly while they tried to brake. EDR data will show if the brake, accelerator, or both pedals were depressed and by how much.

  • transmitterguy

    Don’t waste your time trying to cover up now, it’s too late, They have you.