Your car is spying on you, and you may have invited others to spy on you in the car too.

We have long known that connected devices have the capabilities of tracking our movements and behavior to send to unknown data collectors. Most people understand that their smartphone apps have this capability and are capturing information about our lives and sending it to unknown businesses.

But we have a different relationship with our cars, trucks and SUVs. Whether they are simple transport to work or avatars of lifestyle, people tend to personalize their vehicles and feel both possessive and connected. So it seems like a betrayal to learn all of the creepy ways that your vehicle could be watching you and what can happen with that information.

The subject arises because last week Consumer Reports stated that Tesla’s use of in-car cameras to record video footage of passengers potentially undermines the safety benefits of driver monitoring. “If Tesla has the ability to determine if the driver isn’t paying attention, it needs to warn the driver in the moment, like other automakers already do,” according to Jake Fisher, who is a director at the Consumer Reports’ auto test center. The problem seems to be that Tesla in-vehicle camera monitoring serves Tesla’s data gathering and research purposes rather than the driver’s safety needs.

Ford, BMW, Subaru and General Motors also install in-car monitoring systems, but they do not record or transmit data or video. Some of these systems instead use infrared technology to read the eye movements of drivers and dangerous head positions for a driver. Tesla includes actual cameras in the car, sending video back to the manufacturer. Tesla not only collects location data and your car’s personal settings, but it also knows your speed, mileage and where and when you charge your battery. Tesla also knows when your autopilot is engaged and whether you have your hands on the wheel. Tesla cameras continue to run when autopilot is turned off.

The in-car camera-based surveillance system has caught the attention of the world’s most intrusive surveillance state, and they don’t like it. According to Car and Driver, the Chinese government is restricting Tesla vehicles from entering military and sensitive government facilities due to the constant camera recording in the vehicles. “It’s no secret that Tesla’s vehicles are constantly recording the world around them, but the Chinese government is now concerned that security breaches could result from those always-on cameras. In turn, the Chinese government is banning Teslas from military complexes and state-owned entities in sensitive industries due to concerns that those cameras will collect and divulge information, according to Bloomberg and WSJ.” And this from a government quite sophisticated in its camera surveillance of its own people.

Why is Tesla singled out for the customer/driver surveillance that every car manufacturer is doing? Tesla is using cameras more than other manufactures, and camera surveillance is creepy. But also, as vehicles become more autonomous and prepared to operate without a driver, those vehicles need more devices capturing inputs from both inside and around the vehicle. Tesla is further along in this process than many of its competitors and therefor has more sensors capturing more information.  The others surveil in their own ways and will catch up to Tesla.

A little more than a year ago the Washington Post dismantled a Chevrolet to see what data it was collecting. Car, truck and SUV manufacturers claim to own the data that the vehicle collects – your car collects data for them – and they are secretive about what sensors they include and what data they collect about your whereabouts and you driving. You might think that information about where you are or what you do in the car is your private information, but the car companies don’t. They call that data “telematics” and they hoard it and analyze it. No federal laws regulate telematics or what carmakers can do with it.

So what can the automakers know and do with the telematics? According to Wired they can control aspects of your driving. General Motors offers a “Smart Driver Score” measuring how hard you brake and turn and how often you drive late at night. The Post article found that the car they studies collected unique identifiers from smartphones, detailed log of phone calls including people’s addresses, emails and photos, as well as map sites of where the driver had taken the car recently. The author states, “Coming 5G cellular networks promise to link cars to the Internet with ultra-fast, ultra-high-capacity connections. As wireless connections get cheaper and data becomes more valuable, anything the car knows about you is fair game.” If it happens in your vehicle, assume it is being captured and sent to the manufacturer.

Some people choose to provide all of this telematics information to their car insurance companies, either because they might receive discounts for doing so or because Flo from the commercials says it’s the cool thing to do. By plugging your insurance company into your car, you allow the company to gather vast truckloads of data about your driving and your lifestyle and to do anything they want with that information. There is no guaranty that giving away your privacy will save you money – I personally can’t imagine that my insurance company would approve of the way I drive, not to even mention rewarding me for it. According to Nerdwallet, “rates aren’t always better with usage-based insurance. For instance, if you change jobs and have a longer commute, a pay-per-mile policy could become costly. And with Progressive’s Snapshot program, which monitors how you drive, rates go up for about 20% of drivers, according to the insurer. Bad drivers won’t pay extra at Nationwide, Arango says, but they can lose their initial discount.”

Also, plan on this information being available to your local (and national) constabulary. If the data is captured, police can access it too, with very few current legal restrictions. According to Forbes, “court documents reveal a 15-year history of what's been dubbed "cartapping," where almost real-time audio and location data can be retrieved when cops order vehicle tech providers to hand it over . . . Cops can go further than simply surveilling a car too. In numerous carjacking cases, police have been able to turn off a car's engine to recover the vehicle.” 

Without regulation, vehicles will continue to be more intrusive into our lives, with more sensing equipment, 5G connectivity and better machine-learning based analysis of the data by auto manufacturers, insurers and the police that they share this data with. If you expect Paradise by the Dashboard Light then also expect to be sharing your experiences.  


If you are interested in learning more about technology, data and law, click here to check out Ted Claypoole's new book!