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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.

Stefan Cross, an executive with public relations firm Weber Shandwick, which was assisting in GM's announcement of the new technology, said one possible feature would alert owners by text messages if their cars are bumped or hit. Owners might then be able to activate the exterior cameras remotely for immediate visual reconnaissance in the aftermath of an incident.

"It allows somebody to stay connected to your car even if you're not in it," he said.

Cross said GM would protect the privacy of its customers, even as the volume of data increases. "We have that data. We're just not prepared to release it to third parties."

Yet experts say that in the absence of strong national privacy laws, valuable data often leaks out. Any information produced by a vehicle and transmitted over the internet ends up on servers, making it a potential target for authorities, lawyers engaged in court cases or even hackers. Companies also can voluntarily make some data available to app developers in pursuit of better products for customers.

The Federal Trade Commission has repeatedly taken action in recent years against technology companies - including cellphone maker HTC last month - for failing to adequately protect personal data collected from customers.

The prospect of the government itself gaining access to rich new streams of personal information worries some privacy experts as well. Vehicle data could be used to generate tickets or prosecute drivers after accidents.

"As soon as that data starts flowing to outside parties, whether app developers or [wireless] carriers, I start getting nervous," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It raises the prospect that control over individuals by police, by insurance companies, by whoever, might become much more finely grained than we have now."


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