Self Driving Cars – Privacy Points to Ponder

Cars collect a significant amount of information about our driving. That data will increase dramatically as we move to autonomous vehicles – and with more data comes more ways to use it.

This information can be used now to find fault in an accident or convict us of driving offences. Some insurance companies offer discounts if we share that data with them and they decide we are a safe driver.

Cars increasingly rely on electronic systems for safety features, and self driving cars are coming. They will increasingly collect and store data about not just the car itself but also its surroundings, and will share that with other cars around it.

What might our morning commute look like in a few years?

A driverless car pulls up to your door. You are ready to go because the car sent you a text when it was 2 minutes away. When you get in the car greets you by name, and tells you traffic is light today. As it pulls out it, it asks if you would like to try a new coffee on promo at Starbucks instead of your usual Tim’s stop. You say yes, and it takes you through the Starbucks drive through. Your coffee is ready because the car has already ordered it and told Starbucks when you will arrive. And the car paid for it.

The car tells you your Amazon package should arrive at the pickup point today, and asks if you want to stop there on the way home.

You pass near a restaurant you have gone to before, and the car tells you about an upcoming special. The car makes a reservation for Friday at your request. As you near your office it shows you your schedule for today, and asks if you want to be picked up a few minutes later because of a late meeting.

So what’s going on here?

You may have programed in things like stopping at Tims on the way to work. Or it may have learned your habit after a couple of commutes. Starbucks may have paid for the special to be mentioned. It may have learned about the restaurant and your Amazon order by reading your emails and schedule.

That all sounds very convenient, but the price of convenience is surveillance. And with surveillance comes the ability for others to use that information for good and for evil.

It has been estimated that a self driving car might generate a gigabyte of data per second. It will be tempting to use that data for all sorts of things.

One vehicle data startup CEO says that by 2020, automakers will be able to make more money selling vehicle data than the cars themselves.

It is not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where a self-driving taxi ride could be immensely cheap or even free, because the revenue from advertising and data generated from the ride might be more valuable than the taxi fare.

For example, car cameras and sensors could spot available parking spaces, know how much traffic there is, how many pedestrians are on a block, and how many cars are in line at a drivethrough.

Who owns this information? Who has the right to use it? Car manufacturers will no doubt claim they do. Keep in mind that in the US secondary use of personal information is more acceptable than it is in Canada or Europe.

The privacy implications are enormous. It’s one thing to know that there are two empty parking spaces on a block. It’s totally another to know that my car is parked there, or what stops I make on my commute.

Current privacy laws may not be adequate to deal with these issues. And it challenges the notion of meaningful consent.

As interesting as the idea of self driving cars is, we need to be sure that the price is not too high in terms of privacy and surveillance.

Anyone interested in a deeper dive (drive?) on this subject should look at the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association study titled The Connected Car: Who is in the Driver’s Seat?

 

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