4 Ways Your Car Spies on You — and How to Protect Yourself

We all know that Big Brother watches us when we are online. Today, most of us accept that our personal viewing habits are tracked by advertisers trying to sell us stuff.

But what about when we climb behind the wheel? We may think shutting down our computer and other electronic devices allows for a little private time as we drive. But not necessarily.

Following are four ways in which your driving habits can be recorded and tracked — and tips for protecting yourself from your car’s prying eyes.

1. Event data recorders (EDRs)

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Nowadays, most newer cars have an event data recorder, which notes the information your car’s sensors pick up about your speed, braking and other factors.

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.”

Still, many privacy advocates worry about both the accuracy of the data and how it might be used.

Seventeen states have enacted laws to protect the privacy of EDR information. To find out more about the laws in your state, check out this breakdown from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

2. Telematics systems

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

But do they come at the expense of the driver’s privacy? Last summer, 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.

3. Portable and mobile navigation devices

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When you are uncertain about the route to a particular destination, it’s second nature to power up the GPS on your dash or smartphone. But when you do this, your location information is being transmitted in order for the technology to work.

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

GPS.gov — a site run by the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing — says:

The use of GPS technology to covertly monitor suspects, employees, customers, and other people raises questions about individual privacy rights. Several lawsuits and legislative actions have sought to address these questions, but much remains unresolved today.

The situation has gotten Congress’ attention. A 32-page December 2013 report to Congress summed up the results of a U.S. Government Accountability Office audit of the privacy practices of 10 providers of navigation or telematics services. According to a press release on the GAO report:

All 10 selected companies have taken steps consistent with some, but not all, industry-recommended privacy practices. In addition, the companies’ privacy practices were, in certain instances, unclear, which could make it difficult for consumers to understand the privacy risks that may exist.

4. Car insurance monitoring devices

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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 such as how fast you drive, how hard you brake and when you are on the road. It’s called pay-as-you-go or usage-based insurance.

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

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

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

  • Keep a low profile. Do not post your location on social media. Also, instead of storing your home address in a navigation system, choose a nearby public place.
  • Use your vehicle’s phone system with caution. Skip downloading contacts to the car’s phone system. Turn off the phone’s Bluetooth connection to the car when you are not in the car.
  • Skip automated tolls if you can. Use cash to avoid leaving an electronic trail.
  • Take your portable GPS with you. Don’t leave it or any other electronic devices in your car.
  • Scrub your data. If you sell a car that has GPS, make sure your old data is no longer stored in the navigation system.

What are your thoughts on these privacy issues? Are you concerned? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

Karen Datko contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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