Your car is basically a smartphone with wheels, and it gathers up to 25gb/hour worth of data on you and your driving habits — everything from where you're going to how much you weigh. Cars gather your financial data, data on the number of kids in the back seat, and, once they're connected to your phone, data on who you call and text.
To the extent that Americans know this is going on, they believe that the data their cars generate rightly belongs to them, and if someone else is accessing it, that it should be with their explicit consent and for their benefit (for example, you might want to let your mechanic access trip data to understand your car's performance and to give you tips on how to improve it).
But that's not how the automotive sector sees it. They have arrogated to themselves the right to suck all of this telemetry out of your car on a continuous basis, and what's more, they have used laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to stop rivals from producing tools that would let you access the data you generate by driving your own car, or to block them from accessing it.
This is the home version of what John Deere has done to farmers: using terms of service and copyright licensing to deprive you of the benefit of your own property, to their own benefit. Farmers can't access the telemetry about soil condition they generate by driving their own tractors around their own fields (they can only get it piecemeal as part of an app that comes with Monsanto seed), while Deere can aggregate that data to predict crop yields and sell intelligence to the futures market. Car owners can't access the telemetry from their own vehicles, but automakers can use that data to make real-estate bets, plan products, even place ads on your mobile devices.
Farmers can't fix their own tractors or take them to independent service centers; car owners can't bypass the locks that control their car diagnostic information nor can independent mechanics access the unlock codes that cause cars to recognize new parts after installation.
And neither farmers nor drivers can benefit from independent security audits of the massive, deadly robots they entrust their lives to, because bypassing the system's locks to conduct such an audit gives rise to serious criminal and civil liability.
Right to Repair measures, including Elizabeth Warren's proposal for a national right-to-repair law for farm equipment are a start on this, but anyone who's paying attention knows that so long as terms of service can be imposed on a purchase, they will be used to take away any rights you have in law.
A much more comprehensive approach — some combination of unwaivable privacy rights and an absolute defense for reverse-engineering for security, privacy and user control — is needed before we can stem this tide. And of course, if there were dozens of car manufacturers (instead of a handful), they might compete on privacy and user integrity, but for that to happen, we'd need vigorous antitrust enforcement to break up the existing giants and prevent them from growing in future through acquisitions and mergers.
The data on your driving habits — how fast you drive, how hard you brake, whether you always use your seatbelt — could be valuable to insurance companies. You may or may not choose to share your data with these services. But while you can turn off location data on your cellphone, there's no opt-out feature for your car.
Carmakers use data to alert us when something needs repair or when our cars need to be taken in for service. What they don't tell us is that by controlling our data, they can limit where we get that repair or service done. For almost a century, car and truck owners have been able to take their vehicles to whichever shop they choose and trust for maintenance and repair. That may be changing.
Your Car Knows When You Gain Weight [Bill Hanvey/New York Times]
(Image: Cryteria, CC-BY)