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How much does your car know about you?

Cars are no longer just the simple mode of transformation they once were, they are a sophisticated piece of machinery.

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Nowadays it is an open secret about how our smartphones know about us more than we know ourselves. Artificial Intelligence and Machine learning have come quite far from what they used to be and how they use these tactics so that brands get to know their customers better and consequently can advertise according to the tastes you have. However, unfortunately, it doesn’t just stop at the smartphone. 

Nowadays we drive a lot of smart cars which have the latest information suites; 2021 Chevy Trailblazer, 2021 Toyota Land Cruiser, or even the 2021 Toyota Corolla. We use the infotainment systems like normal and never give a thought that that in essence is a computer itself just like our smartphone. Would you suspect your car, even the older models to quietly record your every move? Well, they do.

Cars are no longer just the simple mode of transformation they once were, they are a sophisticated piece of machinery. All the newer ones you see on the market, all are filled with hundreds of sensors. That’s not it, even the older cars where you can plug your smartphone in know quite a lot about you as they can copy our personal data. A columnist at Washington Post contacted a volunteer who owns a 2017 Chevrolet Volt and the columnist dug into the car to find out more.

These cars of course will never say that they are recording your data, and you cannot download it either. We are at such a revolutionary point for driving surveillance; most new cars in 2020 came with built-in internet communications. Carmakers like Ford, BMW, GM, Volkswagen, and Toyota cell-independent cellular service for their cars where the first three brands do that for 100 percent of their models. 

Cars are no less than smartphones now that happen to be on wheels and can transport people. These data they so ‘smartly’ collect are for the apps, the insurance companies, and pretty much everyone else who could benefit from your personal data, yes, even hackers. That some brands use the data to track you down if you don’t pay your bills and yes, they have the rights for that.

Think about telematics, which is the data recorded by the car about how and where we drive, automakers don’t count that under personal information so that cannot be controlled by you. The new oil on which the cars run now is your data. On a practical note, it is actually crucial for a future where we simply hop into a vehicle and the car drives itself to wherever we want to. No, it is not all doom and gloom, this data is actually helpful in improving safety and reminding you about service alerts which would rather be more informative than those engine lights on the dashboard.

However, we have already discussed generally a lot about how these smartphones, smart speakers, and smart TVs collect all our data. The biggest problem with all this is that more and more of our personal life no longer remains personal as our data gets shared. There are no federal laws that can regulate what the carmakers can do with these data, and the latter is too lazy to draw a line in the sand. Most of them hide this data under jargon-filled privacy policies so that nobody with the exception of a lawyer can come at them.

Let’s get to the actual nitty-gritty, what exactly the car knows about us. The columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler chose a Chevrolet for this research as they were the first to figure out data transparency. GM’s OnStar services have been connecting cars since 1996, initially, it was to summon emergency assistance. Fast forward to the current day more than 11 million vehicles out on the road are 4G LTE data-equipped vehicles; it includes both free basic services as well as extras that come as optional features.

Modern vehicles don’t have just one computer which handles your infotainment needs. Multiple, interconnected systems gather up to 25 gigabytes of data every hour. Even with a laptop, a box of circuit boards, special software, dozens of screwdrivers and sockets, and hours of physical access to a vehicle, you can access only some of those systems. Yes, the infotainment is the most accessible to tamper, the only problem is that it is buried under the dashboard. Let’s look at what the columnist found:

  • The car knows your exact location
  • The car knows wherever you stopped before finally reaching your location
  • A detailed log of your phone calls made using the car phone
  • The list of contacts, including their email addresses, their physical needs, and their photos.
  • Enough data to reconstruct Upstate New York roads
  • Unique identifiers and model names to all the phones ever connected to the car
  • Place where you visit the most, where you get gas, and even the person you call the most along with their photo

All this is just a fraction of the user data the car has. The Ford vehicles record locations even when you are not using the navigation system; most German cars have iPhone-sized 300-gigabyte hard drives. The Tesla Model 3 collects video snippets from any of the cameras, they even have face data now through which they track vehicle and driver attention.

Before you get all frantic and burn your car down to the ground, you should know that much of this data is highly technical for anybody’s use and doesn’t leave the vehicle itself. Most of the data is not even linkable to individuals, for you are a stranger minus your behavior patterns. Then there is what GM calls the Smart Driver score, which is a measure of how good you drive which is essential for insurance companies.

As the advent of the 5G cellular networks approach and communication gets cheaper, in a data-hungry landscape, anything the car knows about you is gold. The only worry with this data is that even the auto industry does not know what they intend to do with this data, but that does not stop them from collecting it.

It is going to take a while when federal laws step in and carmakers actually vow to stand by them. Toyota has already started with that, they have drawn a line in the sand by stating that they do not share the personal data, but they do share the vehicle data with business partners.

What can you do to keep your data safe? Use the car charger the least you can. If it is a rental car, almost never connect your smartphone to that. In addition to that, you can buy car-lighter USB plugs, so that you do not need to use the car computer and still charge your phone. And if you need to be absolutely sure, drive a 1992 Toyota.

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