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Putting The Brake On Who Can See Your Car's Data Trail

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Putting The Brake On Who Can See Your Car's Data Trail

Privacy & Security

Putting The Brake On Who Can See Your Car's Data Trail

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. It's one thing to discover the government is collecting data on us, but now our cars may be keeping track of our every move. Many vehicles can record where we go, how fast we drive, even whether we're buckled up. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, some senators and at least one automaker say it's time for rules to protect driver privacy.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: At the Detroit Auto Show right now, carmakers are happy to demonstrate the technology in their vehicles. A spokeswoman for Buick pointed out some of the safety features in the new Regal.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Automatic crash preparation. This is now - we're actually able to help stop the vehicle in the event of sensing a potential crash or at least reduce the speed.

NAYLOR: And many new Chevys have a dashboard app that some of us in public radio are kind of fond of.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And you can actually run any NPR station in the nation thru this app. So, we're running Detroit because that's where we are. If you log in Detroit...

NAYLOR: But as technology goes this is just the beginning. Google has deals with several automakers to include its Android operating system in their cars by the end of the year. It will offer drivers apps and open the possibility that Google may be able to target ads to drivers, or alert them to nearby shops and restaurants. It also means Google will be able to track drivers. But that's already happening with anyone who has an onboard navigation system such as GM's OnStar or Ford's Sync. Our cars already leave quite a data trail, says John Nielsen, an engineer with AAA.

JOHN NIELSEN: When you think of the services we get like mapping and routing around traffic jams or notification that we're going too fast, you start to think about our car can tell where we are, when we're there, if we're exceeding the speed limit. Boy, cars just have a lot of data. They really look at everything you're doing.

NAYLOR: A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that many companies collect the data and provide it to third parties for traffic instructions or research. But the GAO report also found the companies' privacy practices were unclear, making it difficult for consumers to understand privacy risks. Nielsen says most drivers have no idea what information they're giving out about their driving habits.

NIELSEN: Right now, there's not a lot of transparency around what data is being collected and stored. I think that's the first thing we need to look at is a benchmark - what's being done, what's being captured.

NAYLOR: He says consumers should also be given a choice in what happens to their data. Newer cars also have onboard data recorders, like the so-called black boxes on airplanes. Our speed, direction, whether we're wearing a seat belt, all of that is fed into the recorder and continuously updated. It's useful information to have in case of an accident, but it's not clear who can access that data or what they might do with it, says Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota.

SENATOR JOHN HOEVEN: Right now, the event data recorder records the information on a continuous loop and drops it on a regular basis but retains it in the event of an accident. And there's no restriction in terms of what it can record or how long or who has access to that data.

NAYLOR: Fourteen states have passed laws giving drivers ownership of this kind of auto info. Hoeven, along with Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, has introduced legislation to give drivers in every state the same protection.

HOEVEN: What our legislation does is it provides that that is your information as the owner of the vehicle and it cannot be released without your consent other than under very limited conditions.

NAYLOR: Other legislation has been proposed to protect the privacy of a driver's location. And at least one automaker thinks that this is a good idea. Ford chairman Alan Mulally told auto writers at the Detroit show he supports government efforts to set privacy rules, saying automakers need to know where the boundaries are and have guidelines within which to operate. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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