U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts has sent a much-needed letter to car manufacturers asking them to clarify a surprisingly hard question to answer: what data cars collect? Who has the ability to access that data? Private companies can often be a black box of secrecy that obscure basic facts of the consumer electronics we use. This becomes a massive problem when the devices become more technologically sophisticated and capable of collecting audio, video, geolocation data, as well as biometric information. As the letter says,
“As cars increasingly become high-tech computers on wheels, they produce vast amounts of data on drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and other motorists, creating the potential for severe privacy violations. This data could reveal sensitive personal information, including location history and driving behavior, and can help data brokers develop detailed data profiles on users.”
Not only does the letter articulate the privacy harms imposed by vehicles (and trust us, cars are some of the least privacy-oriented devices on the market), it also asks probing questions of companies regarding what data is collected, who has access, particulars about how and for how long data is stored, whether data is sold, and how consumers and the public can go about requesting the deletion of that data.
Also essential are the questions concerning the relationship between car companies and law enforcement. We know, for instance, that self-driving car companies have also built relationships with police and have given footage, on a number of occasions, to law enforcement to aid in investigations. Likewise both Tesla employees and law enforcement had been given or gained access to footage from the electric vehicles.
A push for public transparency by members of Congress is essential and a necessary first step toward some much needed regulation. Self-driving cars, cars with autonomous modes, or even just cars connected to the internet and equipped with cameras pose a vital threat to privacy, not just to drivers and passengers, but also to other motorists on the road and pedestrians who are forced to walk past these cars every day. We commend Senator Markey for this letter and hope that the companies respond quickly and honestly so we can have a better sense of what needs to change.
You can read the letter here.