Despite ever increasing data privacy laws, companies will somehow either find a way around them or simply ignore them. German auto manufacturer Mercedes has become the latest corporate to join the ranks of privacy violators by fitting their cars with vehicle tracking sensors.
The company admitted not only that the cars it sold were fitted with a vehicle tracking device that can pinpoint the cars' location, but that it would use the information at its whim. Circumstances of such include when car finance customers default on their payments so they can be tracked down.
They also admitted that information about the car owners and location details are shared with third party bailiffs and recovery firms to hunt down and reposes the cars. They sold more than 170,000 new cars in Britain alone last year.
Art Dahnert, Managing Consultant at Synopsys Software Integrity Group, commented extensively on the matter, sharing;
Today's modern vehicle have many sensors that can be used for location identification. There are sensors for the Navigation system, including the common GPS and specialty cameras to read the roadside signs. Various cellular modems to provide communication to and from the car for the convenience of the passengers and to aid first responders in the event of a crash. And finally there are sensors that detect position on the roadway, such as blind spot warning, lane keeping, advanced cruise control.
All of these technologies are available to an OEM and offered to their customers in today's vehicles and by themselves are generally not used to spy on the driver or the passenger compartment.
However, if a manufacturer were to tie these technologies together in order to provide a more compelling product, then there is a strong likelihood for determining exact vehicle location. And as with all technology, it has the potential to be misused or abused.
The missing ingredient is the software to tie all of the individual components together to offer a complete, real-time picture of the vehicle, including spying on the driver or passengers.
For example, the navigation system knows the current GPS location down to the meter. Couple this with information from the speedometer and cruise control system, it is possible to very accurately determine the exact location of a vehicle on a roadway in real time.
Future technology will make this capability standard across all manufacturers. The addition of a cellular modem allows for the communication of that data to anywhere around the world, including to the cloud servers of each OEM.
This information can be collected and tracked either in real time or across previous time periods, if so desired. And since each vehicle is unique, as identified by a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and other unique network markers, a specific individual vehicle can be identified and tracked, isolated from the millions of other vehicles on the road, if required.
Because the vehicles contain other technology, such as an internal microphone for “hands free” phone calls and internal cameras to determine if the driver is awake or distracted, it is possible to visually identify if a specific person is in fact driving a vehicle as well.
Vehicle manufacturers have had personally identifying information about their customers since the very beginning. They know your address as well as other demographic information, such as family size and economic details. This information is often correlated in a database controlled by the automotive corporation.
It is a small step to tie this information to the real time vehicle status, which is, in fact, what some OEMs have done. It is not beyond the capability of today's technology for all of the new vehicles to have this technology, since the systems are already in place and only needs some updated software to make this happen.
This is a real problem if you are concerned about privacy, since it is possible for a corporation to know where you are at any point in time. Currently there are no controls in place from a regulatory or legislative view for this type of location resolution and tracking. It is easy to imagine the damage to individuals or groups of individuals if this system was abused, either by a malicious employee or through some type of remote attack.
The argument that it is only used for tracking down scofflaws who don't make their car payments, is a specious one at best. Today's modern society provides for this already, if needed through the court systems and certainly not requiring real time access.
Unfortunately, this is the scary side of the upcoming generation of vehicle technology as all manufacturers will require real time access to a vehicle's location as we move to a future of self-driving or “near self-driving” cars.
Editor's note: If it isn't enough that people are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for their vehicles, they are now subject to tracking from the companies that sell them. Take your personal privacy seriously and say no to companies that try to track or trace you.
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