Rapid technology advancements in the last decade have expanded the amount of personal data collected from smart products and systems. For instance, most automakers have integrated connectivity and automated features into their cars. As a consequence, the auto industry has been collecting personal data at a record level. This gives rise to an important question: could your car actually be spying on you? This article will further dive into this issue and its ethical implications.

What data does your car gather about you?

Try to remember your actions the last time you were in your car. Did you connect your phone to make and receive calls, or listen to music and news? Did you use the different temperature options or navigation system?

Probably, now that I am asking these questions, you are realizing how much your car might know about you. And by your car, I mean the auto manufacturers and possibly other entities as well. They have information on your interaction with other people, your music taste, regular routes you take, and even health conditions.

Now imagine driving an autonomous vehicle. Yes, it may be convenient not to worry about the actual act of driving. But the price you pay is giving up terabytes of personal data. Autonomous vehicles need more devices that capture information on the inside and outside of the car in order to operate smoothly without a driver.

For example, Tesla has already received criticism about the potential usage of the amount of data it is gathering from the in-vehicle camera monitoring services. These cameras are running even when the autopilot is off, gathering information on driving habits and even the frequent charging places used. This is quite an extensive range of personal information that Tesla collects. Being aware of this fact is only the first step towards addressing the issue.

How can your car be a surveillance tool?

The classic issue with collecting private data circles around the entities that own it and the way they use it. Continuing with the case of Tesla, how the company uses the collected data is still unclear.

On the one hand, the automaker can be using the data to improve the existing tech. But on the other hand, the company may even be sharing it with other interested parties.

All can happen, as long as there is no current federal law that can regulate this type of data usage. The legislative loophole implies that the data can be shared with insurance companies, telecommunication companies, or even the police.

The next time you apply for car insurance, you might get a higher premium because you have driven faster than usual a couple of times, or because your blood pressure was up during the last week. This may sound dystopian, but it is increasingly becoming more realistic and probable.

The surveillance concern has gone beyond the individual level, to the point when it is a matter of national security. The most recent case is with China banning Tesla vehicles from entering its military facilities due to concern about the vehicles’ built-in cameras. Even though Tesla has stated that the data from cameras overseas are not collected by the company, the scrutiny remains at high levels.

What is the ethical concern about the use of AI in the auto industry?

The function of the car has changed dramatically during the last couple of decades. Before it was perceived simply as a transportation means to take people from point A to B. However, with technological progress, the concept of a car has shifted to a set of offered services, where transportation is just one of them. You may think that you have privacy in your car but as we have shown in this article, the privacy line is blurry.

Does it have to be this way, though? Do we have to sacrifice our privacy for the sake of progress or is there a more ethical way to balance both? I think that the key to managing this issue lies in establishing stricter laws on disclosure of data collection and usage. These laws should be strictly enforced and followed by penalties when violated.

After all, information, like any other tool, can be very useful or can become a weapon in the wrong hands. If there is an already existing legislature on confidentiality in traditional business settings, why not raise awareness and push for high standards in information security in the automobile sector? What are your thoughts on this matter? Feel free to initiate a conversation below.


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