DENVER — If you thought your cell phone, Alexa or Google device were the worst about spying on you — think again. It turns out your car is one of the worst offenders when it comes to protecting your privacy.
Mozilla, the company that built the Firefox internet browser and is now a leading watchdog for consumer privacy data, found cars are the worst product category they have ever reviewed for privacy.
“How come nobody is talking about this?” said Mozilla’s lead researcher Jen Caltrider. “This is bad.”
“Cars have more and more cameras, and they even have interior cameras now,” said Bernard Chao, privacy law professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. “They’re always watching.”
If you think about it, your car is a rolling computer on wheels. And for many of us, we not only use it to get around — we live in it.
“It’s just an extension of my office,” said realtor Joy Dysart with HomeSmart.
Dysart drives an Audi Q5 and has come to appreciate all her car can do for her.
“Hey Siri, read my text messages,” Dysart dictated to her car. “I spend all my time here. And safety is important to me. And comfort. Instead of looking at my phone, I can tell Siri to read my text messages. She can answer, read my voicemails and I love that. But on the other hand, I’m not crazy about them tracking me.”
All 25 car companies Mozilla reviewed failed miserably at protecting your data and privacy. Some of the worst offenders are Cadillac, Hyundai, and Nissan. According to Mozilla, Tesla is the worst offender.
“Nissan, for example, says they can collect information about your sexual activity,” Caltrider said. “Kia says they can collect information about your sex life. I think there were four companies that say they can collect genetic information.”
Mozilla said the mountain of paperwork you sign when buy or lease a car essentially gives manufacturers the rights to all your data.
“In that huge stack of paper that you sign to get your car, and no one gets into the devil and the details,” Dysart said.
Mozilla found 84% of car manufacturers share your data, while 76% say they sell it. In addition, 56% of vehicle manufacturers say they will share personal information about you with the government or law enforcement upon request without a court order.
“It’s absolutely freaky,” Caltrider said. “I mean, it’s freaky, creepy and wrong.”
In many cases, your car’s camera system isn’t just there for your safety, but to track your habits, the Mozilla study found.
“And you hook your phone up and share your contacts with your car, which is convenient, but those contacts might also end up at the car company,” said Steven Beaty, professor and chair of computer science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Beaty said the car companies could also share information about how you drive since smart cars are equipped with accelerometers, GPS and more.
“If you speed a lot, change lanes quickly, wrong side of the road — all of these other things,” Beaty pointed out. “This is going to become, I think, a much larger issue as time goes by.”
“Vehicles today don’t allow that level of optionality,” said Shiju Thomas, owner of Hotchkiss Auto Repair on East Colfax.
Unlike your phone, which gives you the option to turn off location services and other functions, vehicle manufacturers have made that nearly impossible, according to Thomas.
“Your navigation is going to work in a certain way, and your audio is going to work in another way in which it's recording what you’re saying. And it’s able to collect all that data and it just piles on and on and on,” Thomas said. “Increasingly in the automotive industry, data is a gold mine. And being able to sell that to other advertisers can be a part of that unintended consequence. And that’s absolutely scary. I think the reality is if consumers knew what the vehicle manufacturers were doing with their data, there would be a lot more concern.”
The legalities of all this are mind-numbing.
“The car companies are able to jam down their customer agreements on us because we really, they’re take it or leave it. We don’t get to negotiate with them,” Chao said.
Chao points out Tesla was recently sued over privacy issues. It’s Sentry mode uses the vehicle’s external cameras to detect security issues when the vehicle is parked. Tesla employees were watching those videos, the lawsuit claims.
“Employees don’t always abide by the stated purposes that their employers put forth,” Chao said. “Employees just sort of set around because they thought they saw funny footage, including a naked guy, I think, approaching his car late at night.”
Chao said one of the central questions to the abuse is how long car manufacturers are storing your data.
“From embarrassing, to sort of annoying like marketing, to really horrible like tracking exactly where you’ve been,” Chao said.
So where is the spying coming from? Most experts agree, your rearview mirror is much more than a reflection of what’s behind you.
“One area that there’s going to be a lot of sensors is right behind (your rearview mirror),” Thomas said. “Not only do you have video but also microphones. How many people are with their spouse, a loved one, a child and they’re driving and talking about something private? That shouldn’t be the purview and data owned by a vehicle manufacturer.”
Thomas is also seeing another alarming trend from car manufacturers, which is cutting out small businesses.
“They’re trying to prevent independent repair shops from having that data to even repair vehicles, such that you have to take your Tesla to a Tesla dealership for repairs,” Thomas said. “So what it’s doing is it also squeezes out the independent repair shops. And that prevents choice from consumers. It’s absolutely a concern that your local mechanic might not be able to work on your car.”
Mozilla’s team spent more than 600 hours researching this topic — three times as much as they normally do on privacy research. It’s even confusing to Mozilla in terms of how your data is collected, used and shared.
“We’re kind of left without a lot of transparency and with our imaginations,” Caltrider said.
Don’t hang your driving gloves up just yet.
“I think there should be some privacy embedded in what we choose to do,” Dysart said.
“I would suggest we still need more laws, so we need legislatures to act in this particular area to help us,” Chao said.
“What I really think people should do is just get mad and call your elected official and say, ‘Hey, we need stronger privacy laws. We need a federal privacy law,’” Caltrider said.
“There’s an implicit right to privacy and protection of what’s going on in one’s life, especially when people view their vehicles as an extension of their own home,” Chao added.
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