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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.

Black box for cars

In the United States, proposed new federal highway safety rules would require all new cars by 2014 to come equipped with so-called "black boxes" to save vehicle information from the final seconds before and after crashes. The plan has prompted several privacy groups to lobby for an explicit declaration that data produced by a vehicle is owned by the motorist, with authorities having access only under certain conditions.

Yet some vehicle computer systems already on the road offer the potential for monitoring driver behaviour to a far greater extent than "black boxes" do. A critical review of an electric car in The New York Times last month that said the vehicle lost power in cold weather drew an exceptionally detailed rebuttal from the manufacturer, Tesla, that cited logs kept by an onboard computer. (The Times has stood by its review.)

There are few legal standards for what information a vehicle can collect, how it can be used and by whom. Each manufacturer produces its own onboard internet systems, each with specific rules that few consumers review and even fewer understand, said privacy experts.

"People are being duped into giving away a whole lot of information that maybe somebody ought to ask us about first," said Dorothy Glancy, a Santa Clara (California) University law professor who studies privacy and transportation. "It seems to me you ought to get a choice."

The internet system used by Ford, which last week announced greater integration with the popular music app Spotify, relies on a user's smartphone to connect with wireless services.

The integration between car and smartphone means that some vehicle data can be made available to developers through an open internet platform, allowing for a new generation of apps that draw on the information, said Ellis, the Ford technologist who heads its developer program.

The privacy policies of app makers would govern how an individual's personal information can be used, Ellis said. "We assume that you're comfortable with whatever privacy policy that app has."

WIFI General Motors in-car wifi

Also in Barcelona, General Motors announced plans to install high-speed wireless connections on all of its vehicles beginning with the 2015 model year, in partnership with AT&T. The new system will augment OnStar, which long has provided some GM customers with directions, emergency assistance and help recovering stolen cars.

One of the prototype vehicles on display here, a dark blue Cadillac ATS sedan, was outfitted with OnStar, streaming video, music apps and cameras installed aimed at both the interior and exterior of the car. In demonstrations, one of the car's interior cameras took short video clips of occupants that were incorporated in animated sequences broadcast on the dashboard video screen.


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