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Web-connected cars bring privacy concerns

Craig Timberg (via WP Bloomberg and AFR) | March 7, 2013
Cars will soon be so linked into wireless networks they will be like giant rolling smartphones - with calling systems, streaming video, cameras and applications capable of harnessing the unprecedented trove of data vehicles will produce about themselves and the humans who drive them.

Web-connected cars bring privacy concerns

More than 60 per cent of vehicles worldwide will be connected directly to the internet by 2017, up from 11 per cent last year, predicts ABI Research. Photo: Jeff Durham

Cars will soon be so linked into wireless networks they will be like giant rolling smartphones - with calling systems, streaming video, cameras and applications capable of harnessing the unprecedented trove of data vehicles will produce about themselves and the humans who drive them.

The battle over who can access all this data is an awkward undercurrent amid recent announcements by car manufacturers touting their new, internet-capable vehicle systems.

Low on gas? Soon a gas station app may know before you do. Tires need rotating? Your car may wirelessly alert your dealership when it's time. Ready for a lunch break? Your car can make a reasonable guess based on the hour.

A savvy restaurant app may soon use additional detail, such as whether the person in the back seat is watching a Disney movie, in deciding to offer an advertisement featuring a Happy Meal and directions to the nearest McDonalds.

Cars have long gathered data to monitor safety and performance. But their newfound connectivity may allow a range of parties - automakers, software developers, perhaps even police officers - new access to such information, privacy advocates say. Because few US laws govern these issues, consumers have little control over who can see this data and how it can be used.

More than 60 per cent of vehicles worldwide will be connected directly to the internet by 2017, up from 11 per cent last year, predicts ABI Research. In North America and Europe, that percentage is likely to reach 80 per cent.

Many cars already record their speed, direction and gear setting, as well as when brakes activate and for how long. Newer systems also can track whether road surfaces are slick or whether the driver is wearing a seat belt - information potentially valuable to police and insurance companies investigating crashes. (Some car insurance companies already monitor driving behaviour in exchange for discounted rates.)

"The cars produce literally hundreds of megabytes of data each second," said John Ellis, a Ford technologist who demonstrated some of the new internet-based systems at the company's display at the Mobile World Congress, which in Barcelona last month. "The technology is advancing so much faster than legislation or business models are keeping up. . . . What can government do? What can you do?"

Such issues go beyond vehicles. Many of the nearly 1,500 exhibits at the Mobile World Congress touted technology fuelled by personal information. Thermostats, health sensors, even Dumpsters, can function better, according to companies exhibiting their products here, if individual behaviour is tracked.

 

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