Modern cars are always watching us. Should we be worried?
Nearly 20 percent of drivers admit to picking their nose in their cars. That admittedly gross statistic (based on a U.K. survey) alludes to a larger truth: We tend to think of our cars as private sanctuaries. Yet technology for self-driving cars, much of it already on the market, threatens to turn that sanctuary into a place of intense and constant observation.
“Imagine a world where every car on the road has multiple cameras filming all at the same time,” said Tifani Sadek, a former GM lawyer who’s now director of the University of Michigan’s Law and Mobility program. “We’ve created a massive surveillance state that just didn’t exist before.”
There are a number of ways in which modern cars can watch us. Exterior cameras (the Tesla Model 3 has eight) survey the road, while interior cameras monitor driver alertness. What those cameras see in many cases gets transmitted and used for further development of autonomous vehicles. For instance, Mobileye, one of the leading suppliers of cameras for vehicles, uses the stream from millions of vehicles for what it calls Road Experience Management—a continually updated map of roads around the world.
The greatest shield for our personal information is the U.S. Constitution. In particular, the Fourth Amendment prevents search and seizure without “probable cause.” However, this right is not absolute. For one thing, a private individual or corporation can simply ask for consent to collect and use information—it’s usually buried in those multipage disclosures we all mindlessly accept. Even without that, a court will ask whether your expectation of privacy was “reasonable.” What exactly qualifies as reasonable depends on several factors, including where you are (in your home, you might reasonably expect a lot of privacy; walking down Times Square, very little) and from whom you want privacy (there’s generally greater protection against government intrusion than from individuals or companies). The standard has also evolved over time. Forty years ago, you’d never expect a company to know or care what photos you looked at or what news stories you read. Nowadays, companies like Google and Facebook monetize such information to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Therein lies a Catch-22: Intrusions into our privacy have a way of lowering the threshold for the next intrusion. “Government and private-industry surveillance techniques created for one purpose are rarely restricted to that purpose, and every expansion of a data bank and every new use for the data opens the door to more and more privacy abuses,” warned the ACLU back in 2001, when it was advocating against traffic-light cameras.
The constant encroachment not only erodes our legal rights but needles us psychologically. We’re already being tracked by our phones and getting eavesdropped on by Alexa. Does it really make that much of a difference if we’re also being watched in our cars?
It very much does, says Sadek, because of how we use our vehicles and, more specifically, whom we put in them. “We have passengers, and we have minors in the car,” she notes. “If I get into an autonomous vehicle that has a camera, it’s watching my kids, too.”
Granted, most companies aren’t out to steal your individual information. Mobileye, for instance, says it scrubs identifying details from its camera footage, not just because doing so is ethical but also because it makes the data easier to transmit and process. The fact that you told your boss you were at home when you were actually driving to a Taylor Swift concert is a boring waste of bandwidth (but beware that if you’re in a company car, your boss might be able to track your location).
Most automakers who operate in the United States have committed to “Consumer Privacy Protection Principles,” a document created by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. Some of those principles are distressingly vague (“Participating Members commit to collecting Covered Information only as needed for legitimate business purposes”) but at the very least reflect a desire to protect privacy beyond the letter of the law. It’s worth acknowledging that real-world driving data has the potential to dramatically improve safety on public roads, as well. Most of us trade privacy for far less. “I know Google is crawling through my emails, and I don’t mind it, because it tipped me off that I’m going to be late due to extra traffic on the road,” says Sadek.
In any event, shutting down the car cameras is likely impossible. It may be more reasonable to expect laws that clarify what kind of information a car (or any technology) can collect from an individual. In many places, such laws already exist. In 2016, the EU passed the General Data Protection Regulation, which stipulates an individual’s “fundamental right” to certain levels of data protection from both public entities and private companies. Some U.S. states, like California, have passed similar bills. Given how easy it is for data to cross state lines, the need for federal regulations seems obvious. “We’re trying to read this 200-year-old document to figure out what it means about autonomous vehicles,” says Sadek. “It would be much easier simply to pass some legislation that clearly states what rights you have, and what rights you don’t have.”