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6 ways your car can spy on you
6 ways your car can spy on you
Toll tags, like E-ZPass, are a quick and easy way to pay tolls. Instead of fumbling with change, you just drive through a toll booth and the payment -- often discounted -- is automatically deducted from your account.
Of course, you're also letting someone know where you were at that exact moment and in which direction you were headed.
Toll tags also provide valuable information about how well traffic is flowing. Computers can time how long it takes a car to travel from one toll booth to another or from one toll tag sensor to another.
Toll data has been used in criminal cases and divorce proceedings. ("You were visiting a client in Connecticut, you say? The toll records say you were driving to New Jersey... where your girlfriend lives!")
In New Jersey, at least, EZ-Pass toll records can be accessed only with a court order and only in criminal cases, according to New Jersey Turnpike Authority spokesman Tom Feeney. The records are, however, only kept indefinitely.
The rules may differ wherever you are. New Jersey's privacy rules apply only to those who have an EZ-Pass account in that state. If you have a toll tag form someplace else, your privacy protection may vary.
Most cars today contain a so-called "Black Box" similar to those found on airplanes. These boxes continuously record the car's speed as well as what the driver is doing with the steering wheel and brakes.
The box has a short memory, though. The data is continuously overwritten every few seconds. In the event of a crash, the recording stops, preserving the few seconds of data just before and after the impact.
If you were speeding just before the impact -- or if you didn't brake or swerve to avoid the crash -- the recorder knows and its contents could haunt you in a court of law. (Or in the media, as some Toyota accusers found out.)
Getting permission to download data from a car requires a court order, said Michigan personal injury attorney Dan Buckfire, but it's usually not hard to get one.
"It's just general information," he said. "It's not like it was recording where you were going."
In other words, it's just another piece of evidence pertaining to the crash itself, like skid marks or dent damage. Therefore, the privacy issues aren't huge.
If you're the accused, that evidence could work for you or against you. For instance, if you're accused of speeding, the data may show that, actually, you weren't. The challenges are really technical, Buckfire said. This stuff isn't easy to download and few people have the technical expertise needed to to do it.
Cell phone navigation
OK, this isn't exactly your car, but a device you carry into the car to use while you're driving.
When you use your cell phone for turn-by-turn navigation there's a whole lot of data streaming in and out of your car. And that data can be very useful for monitoring traffic flow.
Cell phone companies will send that data about vehicle speeds in various locations to companies that use it to provide real-time traffic information.
No identifying information about your car is shared, cell phone companies and traffic data providers say. Instead the data from many drivers is is grouped together anonymously and used to calculate overall traffic speeds on various roads. So while there may be the theoretical potential for individual tracking, it's not being used for that.
Data about your destination is also stored "anonymously," Verizon spokeswoman Debra Lewis said, not in any way that would allow someone to find out who asked for directions to a specific address.
Also, at least in the case of Verizon phones, it's all spelled out in a disclaimer you're supposed to read -- you did read all that, right? -- before you start using the app.
Like Facebook, using a so-called "telematics" service like OnStar involves certain obvious privacy trade-offs. It's up to you, as a subscriber, to decide whether those trade-offs are worth it. With OnStar, for instance, it can find out where your car is. But in a medical emergency, or if your car is stolen, you want someone to know where it is.
OnStar, the best known service, is linked to a GPS navigation system in your car even if your car isn't equipped with a computer navigation screen. The car shares data with the operators and computers that provide all those nifty services.
But your exact location is usually only shared when you request some sort of service, like navigation or the name of an Italian restaurant nearby.
Every new service OnStar introduces involves some serious discussion about those privacy trade-offs, OnStar execs say. For instance, one new service is teen driver tracking. In this case, the cars can be tracked only using a secure password-protected Web site, OnStar spokeswoman Cheryl McCarron said.
In terms of data, such as vehicle locations, "anonymized" data is kept indefinitely while more specific data is kept only as long as needed to fulfill specific requests, she said.
NEXT: Insurance deals
Aggressive drivers are bad insurance risks. But how's an auto insurer to know? Basically, they have to guess. Your driving record and your gender -- sorry, guys -- are good places for them to start.
But what if insurance companies could actually monitor your driving habits right from the car and tell, firsthand, if you're an aggressive driver? That'd be the best way to know. And that's why some insurance companies offer discounts to drivers willing to let Big Brother ride shotgun.
Again, this is a trade-off the driver makes willingly. In the case of Progressive's Snapshot, a small device plugs into the car's diagnostics port. It doesn't record where you drive or even how fast. All it records is how many miles you drive, what time of day and how hard you step on the brakes. Frequent hard braking shows aggressive tendencies and that, Progressive's analysts have found, is an excellent predictor of crash risk.
Drivers can agree to have their braking habits monitored for six months and, in return, they can qualify for a discount of up to 30%, Progressive says.
NEXT: Spying on your teen
It's scary when your teenager starts driving on her own. But technology can make it a little less scary. Several simple devices now on the market allow you to track where, when -- and how fast -- your teen drives.
Plugged into the car's vehicle diagnostics port, devices like the Tiwi, which also contains a GPS tracking device, allow parents to set limits on how much over the speed limit -- if any -- kids are allowed to drive and even define certain parts of town kids have to stay within.
Parents can even be notified in real time when the limits are broken and a voice inside the car can remind the driver, too.
These things are really the ultimate in automotive privacy invasion but, hey, they're your kids.