Piston Slap: Keeping Big Data Out of Your Ride?


Scott writes:

I’m 74, and I have a 1990 Vanagon (with a 2.5 Subie engine) and a ’91 Porsche 964. They both have computers, but not the kind that report my every thought, action, and broadslide to “the authorities.” The idea of buying a newer car terrifies me because, well … “Question Authority.”

I assume that privacy in new cars is totally impossible. But (here’s the question part) is it possible to take a new car and strip Big Brother from it?

Sajeev answers:

Possibly, but I am neither a lawyer nor a computer hacker. While both of those folks are more qualified to answer this question, I shall do my best. And my best means I won’t suggest adding an Eldorado Biarritz-style stainless steel roof atop a modern car, but hey, that’d certainly look cool.

1982 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz high angle overhead
Nathan Deremer

This is a good time to mention that I am one of those younger folks who somewhat doesn’t care about the personal data in my car, phone, and social media channels. (Aside from hacks to circumvent banking laws that empty my savings account, of course.) I see Big Data as part of doing business in our modern capitalistic society, and I love the fact that Google Maps is pretty darn accurate in addressing traffic slowdowns, thanks to everyone’s data contributions.

Yeah, I appreciate this. stackoverflow.com / Google Maps

But there’s always a dark side to Big Data, and what bothers me are rental cars. Plugging your phone into that Chevy Malibu gives someone else a lot of opportunity to scam you and possibly steal your identity. So always dig into the rental car’s settings, tap around for a minute so it can delete or forget your phone. (And maybe delete everyone else’s information too, since you’re a good person like that.)

But for those folks who wholly reject my notions, I totally get it. Let’s discuss options for modern car ownership with privacy concerns.

  • Buy a hacked or jailbreaked Tesla: Sure, the warranty will be voided, but their service centers aren’t exactly great anyway. There are seemingly countless hacks, and it seems like the Black Hat hackers (i.e. the supposed bad guys) have figured out a lot about Teslas. Remember that this automotive brand pitches itself as a tech company, catering to a tech-obsessed crowd. So if you’re inclined, read this to learn more.
  • Seek third party help: A company called Privacy4Cars caters to concerns for dealerships and individuals. They have an app to use your data make that happen for you. I hesitate to give the hyperlink because I know nothing about them, but perhaps clicking here is indeed a good start on your journey.
  • Read the Owner’s Manual: Learn how to restore a vehicle to factory settings and other bits of data collection that will be available in the owner’s manual. The manual won’t stop your car from storing a lot of vehicle-specific information on you, but the data that opens you up to scammers can be deleted.
  • Make it the Salesperson’s problem: My time in the car business taught me many truths, and one is that younger salespeople who view this industry as a career are HUNGRY for loyal customers. (No offense to the older sales folks, but they often already have a book of business and don’t need to struggle as much.) Salespeople in general will move heaven and earth to earn happy customers, they have access to service professionals (and their proprietary hardware) in the next building, and they might just find the right balance between data collection and the headaches involved in curtailing it.

I wish I had a better answer, but routing people to places they need to explore is sometimes the best we can do here at Piston Slap. Perhaps someone in the Hagerty Community will comment below with more valuable advice?

Have a question you’d like answered on Piston Slap? Send your queries to pistonslap@hagerty.comgive us as much detail as possible so we can help! Keep in mind this is a weekly column, so if you need an expedited answer, please tell me in your email.



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    My preferred quote on this subject is from Curtis Brubaker, most modern cars “have too much $#!+ going on”. I’m looking forward to truly self driving cars, like riding on a train, read the paper or something. But if I’m the driver, all the gadgets; radars, sensors, screens, computers, steering and braking assist etc are not only distractions, but expen$ive. High cost, not beneficial as far as I’m concerned. Rear cameras make an experienced driver incompetent, backing up as slow as a senile senior who should not be driving. There can’t be two decision makers in control of the same high speed, potentially fatal, ton/s of metal. I have an ’11 and keeping it as long as possible. https://jalopnik.com/the-creator-of-the-brubaker-box-has-some-big-plans-for-1614291268

    Sajeev; I don’t think that a stainless-steel roof alone will act as a Faraday cage.

    Maybe a solution is to simply obey traffic laws, don’t discuss anything incriminating, and avoid backseat hijinks. So much for the “freedom” that cars once provided.

    “don’t discuss anything incriminating” kind of depends on what Big Brother thinks is “incriminating” these days. What with how government is illegally using social media to carry out un-Constitutional censorship these days.

    Even if the conversation doesn’t run afoul of a bureaucrat, I’ve had many conversations in a car I don’t want others to hear, which is precisely why they took place in the privacy of a private automobile.

    My newest car is a 12 (and the oldest a 65) so I don’t have real-world data on this, but somewhere in that car is a transmitter. Find it and disconnect it and you are out of the Big Data game. You are also out of the GPS, mobile hot spot, Sirius, OnStar, etc. game, so make sure you and yours can live without those things. I can

    That sort of works as long as you never take the vehicle in to a dealership for service, and you implicitly trust your third party mechanic to not download anything through the car’s physical connections.

    I watched a video where a guy hacked an infotainment system and it was not a plug-and-play ordeal. He disassembled the dash, removed the CPU (one of many in your car) and connected to it with custom cables and software. Your mechanic is not likely to get to anything interesting

    It can be done as things like on star can be disabled as of now.

    The real issue may be going forward where laws for things like speed limiters that are GPS based will require you to keep them functional. California is already looking at this law.

    The roof has no effect but the antenna or data receiver does. .

    I just looked up On Star and to eliminate it you need to pull apart the radio module and pull the On Star board. There is also something you need to do with the fuse.

    Most of these systems are covered in youtube if you feel the need. I know you can order a fleet sale vehicle without it and I assume they leave the module. out.

    Beware that with these systems and brands these all can vary and what may work on one car may not work on others and set off a stream of issues.

    I would not follow anything that cuts wires and could not be reversed.

    This issue seems like a great business opportunity for someone of the hacker mentality. I wonder if Big Brother has any laws regarding hacking these systems. If not, I’m sure they will at some point.

    An idea just popped into my head: these systems are radio based so they must operate on specific assigned frequencies. It might be possible to design and build a very low power (so as not to affect other vehicles) jammer which could effectively disable your own car’s ability to communicate. A question then arises: if this radio/data communication is disrupted, will this disable the ability of the vehicle to operate as it should, as you’ve paid for?

    As to those who say “just follow the law,” the Germans were following the law, as are many who engage in honor killings in some countries. There are lots of bad laws out there as well as “authorities” happy to twist laws to their benefit.

    Strange fruit.

    The newer cars get and the more tech they have the more they record and can thereby pass on to someone. Your car wifi can be hacked and your obd2/canbus car can pass on loads of data. Check your car companies privacy policy for how they feel about the date recorded by your car. On top of that you like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto? Well those companies are already getting their cut on top of whatever your phones are giving. Privacy is not a reality in modern tech.

    If there are people so paranoid about privacy in the car (I’m of a younger generation and I thought there are so many people caring about it. I personally don’t care at all, as Sajeev), there is a simple solution.
    No matter how sophisticated the car is it still has to transmit “to Big Brother” all the gathered data. And here lies its big Achilles heel. There are no working machine-to-machine communications as of now yet that I’m aware of (but it’s coming) so the only way for a car to transmit data is by either your Wi-Fi when the car is parked near home (and of course connected to WiFi with your password), or 3G/4G/5G modem inside the car. So the solutions are quite simple, and there are few of them.
    1) obviously if you care about that – don’t let the car access your (or someone else’s) Wi-Fi. Just simply don’t give it your Wi-Fi password. Cars can’t break your Wi-Fi to get data to Big Brother 🙂
    2) Research which type of modem is in the car you’d like to have. You’ll be surprised how many cars had 3G modems up until the last minute. “Last minute” in this case is a 3G shutdown in the US. If you haven’t heard, yeah, that’s true. They shut down 3G to free up frequency bands for 5G. So, unless the previous owner upgraded to a 4G or 5G modem, your 2010-2021 car with a 3G modem inside will not be able to communicate with Big Brother in any way. But even if your car has a 4-5G modem inside there’s a solution:
    3) Just… Disconnect it! It shouldn’t be too hard to find it as per manual or online forums/instructions. And that’s it. Your car will be as private as it gets. And no, neither the dealership nor any other mechanic won’t be able to “download your talks” when you service the car, even if you disable the modem.

    But in general, I’d like to add to folks that they really should not be that paranoid about privacy issues in cars. Yes, they are connected, and yes they theoretically potentially could “hear some things”. But then what? Are you afraid that the Secret Service will tell the President about how you did something bad at work, or with your neighbor’s daughter? Or perhaps how (and in every detail WHY) do you hate one or the other party? Don’t be paranoid. Think about how many drivers and new cars are out there. And every single one of them has their hard options on the President, the government, their work, boss, wife, and so on. But I never heard a story of a divorce because car told wife that he was cheating. Or some criminal action because the Secret Service found out what one really thinks of someone (even the President) by listening to one’s car.
    I mean yeah, if you are exactly planning steps for some mind-blowing terrorist action with many causalities, then yeah, probably you should not get the new car. Other than that – just live your life, enjoy the driving and modern amenities. Don’t be afraid of new.

    “is it possible to take a new car and strip Big Brother from it?” Short answer: yes, but you probably won’t like doing it. Modern cars are so loaded up with CAN bus systems and redundancies that you’d seriously hamper its ability to car at all. Strip out too much and you find that, hey, a lot of seemingly independent systems are actually using the same “pathways” within your car. The done thing here is one of two options: 1) get something older (like this crowd is wont to do anyway) or 2) stop caring so much. I can guarantee that Big Brother doesn’t care about a conversation in your car. You’re simply not that important, and they’d rather use your car’s data to recommend a restaurant near by than to send The Black Vans to your house. Also, your phones are *always* listening to you, inside or outside your car, and they have built-in data transmitters, so we’re really missing the point asking this question.

    It’s not a question of black vans showing up at the house, it’s a matter of principle. Manufacturers build the cost of the tech into the price of the truck and then sell the data in perpetuity. They profit from both sides.

    If you own a newer Chevrolet product On Star is watching you and reporting how you drive to the insurance companies. So your rates will go up. BUT, there is a switch you can click in the MyChevrolet app to stop it. Look for it. I did and found that by default it is on. The switch is in the section called Smart Driver.

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