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Your car is spying on you

Are you being stalked behind the wheel? Here's how to tell and what you can do about it.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 20, 2014 7:04PM

By Allison Martin, Money Talks News Money Talks News


Big Brother is always watching. That's what we've come to believe, at least in our online lives where our personal viewing habits are tracked and used by advertisers to try to sell us stuff.

But shutting down your computer and other electronic devices allows for a little private time, right? Well, not necessarily. Not if you're driving in your car.

Let's take a look at some of the ways your car may be spying on you.


Nowadays, most new cars have an electronic data recorder, which notes what your car's sensors are picking up about your speed, braking and other factors like use of safety equipment in the event of a crash. In essence, the EDR is your vehicle's black box, recording what transpired in your car's systems in the seconds before and during a crash.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says, "EDRs do not collect any personal identifying information or record conversations and do not run continuously."

While the data can be used to improve car safety, a recent article in Consumer Reports magazine also said:

Still, there is concern about the accuracy of the data, who owns it, and how it's being used. The NHTSA says that it considers the information the property of the vehicle owner, and automakers say that the data is accessed only with the owner’s consent.

However, only 14 states actually have laws to protect the privacy of EDR information, CR says.

Man driving a car © Image Source/Getty Images

Remote connection services, such as GM’s OnStar, Ford Sync and Chrysler UConnect, come with an array of benefits, like navigation services, vehicle tracking, roadside dispatch and assistance in the event of an emergency, diagnostic checks and remote updates.

But does it come at the expense of the driver's privacy? Consumer Reports wrote:

Though EDRs capture only a few seconds of data, telematics systems provide a regular stream about a car’s location and other parameters. And it's not clear what data is collected and what is done with it. Even automakers don’t seem sure about the best ways to use it.

Portable and mobile navigation devices

When you're uncertain about the route to a particular destination, it's second nature to power up the GPS on your dash or smartphone. While they definitely save time, your location information is being transmitted in order for it to work.

This transmission of data by GPS devices and telematics systems has prompted privacy concerns and has the attention of Congress.

The Kicking Tires blog reported  :

At the behest of Congress, the Government Accountability Office audited privacy practices for 10 providers of navigation or telematics services in 2013: the Detroit Three, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, portable navigation providers Garmin and TomTom, and smartphone navigation developers Google Maps and Telenav. GAO interviewed privacy advocates, investigated exactly what those companies do with your information and compared it to industrywide best practices for privacy protection.
In a 32-page December 2013 report to Congress posted on Jan. 6, GAO found the providers fall well short of those practices.

Check out the blog post and the report for more details about the type of information that’s shared about your driving by these companies. Kicking Tires noted that the companies are acting legally and that no federal law governs these practices.

Insurance devices

Auto insurance companies have made it easier to save on car insurance. But there's a catch: That discount of up to 30 percent could cost you privacy behind the wheel. Many of the leading car insurers, such as Progressive, State Farm and Allstate, provide a device that plugs into your car and records information like how fast you drive, how hard you brake and when you're on the road. It's called pay-as-you-go or usage-based insurance.

It's also the source of privacy concerns. Ron Lieber of The New York Times wrote:

But usage-based insurance, as the program is known, generates vast amounts of data. While insurance companies are pledging to keep it to themselves for now, some experts believe that we're only a few years away from companies’ contributing complete driver histories into a central industry database. Then, we'd all have driver scores like the numbers that FICO helps creditors calculate, which would follow us around whenever we shopped for a new auto insurance policy.

Lieber also noted that some insurance companies would like to start tracking where you drive.

Ways to protect yourself

Consumer Reports has some recommendations to protect your privacy, including:

  • Keep a low profile. "Don't share self-identifying infor­mation such as your Facebook status or publicize your location on social media. Also, don’t store an address labeled 'home' in a navigation system; instead, store the address of a public place."
  • Use your vehicle's phone system with caution. "Don't download contacts to the car's phone system, and turn off the phone’s Bluetooth connection to the car when you exit," CR says.
  • Skip automated tolls if you can.
  • Turn off your cellphone and remove the battery. Even if the phone is off, location data is still being transmitted, CR says.
  • Take your portable GPS with you. And if you sell a car with GPS, make sure your old data is no longer stored in the device.
  • Actually read the privacy policy before you sign up. 

What are your thoughts on these privacy issues? Are you concerned?

Karen Datko contributed to this post.

More from Money Talks News

Aug 21, 2014 10:41AM

Recently a relative returning from a trip to Canada had their rear hatch to their VW van opened remotely by the US Border guard.   The couple was in mid-conversation about their trip as they were returning home when all of a sudden the rear hatch opened fully and then after a pause closed.  Neither person in the auto was asked permission for it to happen nor did they physically do anything to open the hatch, nor were they aware it was being done remotely.     Climate change?  Global warming?   Losing control over privacy and freedom is the greatest threat to this nation.

Aug 21, 2014 1:44PM

This is nothing new to me. I always knew this data from a auto could be used to benefit and hurt you. I had a insurance company offer me one of those devices and a 25% discount when I was out insurance shopping. I told them took at my record, my odometer, and my old registration if they want to know how much and how I drive. He asked me why and I told him I think he would be surprised, well he did and found I don't drive as much as they thought and my record is spotless....

Actually the data device the insurance company offers doesn't scare me at all because I don't speed, brake hard, or accelerate quickly..... the reason why I don't like it is it invades privacy.  The one thing we don't need is a insurance score like our FICO to hassle some of us for the rest of our lives.

Aug 21, 2014 3:05PM
LOL...  I have a restored 1972 Buick & there are no computers in it.  If I want to go somewhere without the "big bad guvmint" following me I just take the old car out of the garage. So, there is the solution, people. You want automotive privacy, get a classic car and drive it. You will not only be able to go anywhere without the NSA, the CIA, and the IRS in the backseat, you will also look cool wherever you go.
Aug 21, 2014 2:48PM
Not in our cars.Our "new" one is 1971.The daily drivers?1965,1958,1967.The bikes?1972,1971,1977.They take  a little maintenance but being ASE certified it is no problem.They are actually easier to work on and cheaper to maintain than the customer vehicles I work on for a living.
Aug 21, 2014 1:18PM
I put a voter registration card, with republican stamped on it, in my glove box and got a nasty email from the DNC.............scary.
Aug 21, 2014 2:21PM
Not my car, I wont own a black boxer.
Aug 21, 2014 2:29PM

In the very near future, you will be scraping cars due to electronic failures over mechanical or collision damage.

Aug 21, 2014 5:15PM
eyup, I'm sticking to older cars...
Aug 21, 2014 6:10PM
George Orwell...Big Brother is watching!
Aug 21, 2014 3:36PM
feels as though we are on the cusp of a new method of wheeled vehicle transportation. Our reciprocating engines, rubber tires, electronic computer modules, air bags and pretentious safety features may soon end. Perhaps with the admission of execs, that so much of our vehicles are sub standard, and needlessly costly, they might explore another direction. A new, safer and fuel efficient vehicle should be on the way.
meanwhile, we are keeping the horses.
If the jackbooted thugs in the government can put it in a car i'm sure there's a way to take it out and not have the car stop working.
Aug 21, 2014 8:00PM
Doc.  Try posting where it is o topic.  The President does not set safety standards in motor vehicles. 
Aug 21, 2014 1:23PM
How stupid do you have to be to not know this already.  More trash articles from MSN!
Aug 21, 2014 1:20PM
i really don't get why this is bad.  maybe i'm shortsighted, but i like people marketing to me based on what i do and where i go.  if you are a crappy driver, don't install the insurance device.  if my phone is disabled how can i receive calls?  get a life
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