Almost every American is troubled by the extraordinary growth of Big Tech’s data collection efforts and the threat they pose to our privacy and constitutional rights. Not only is our browsing history fair game, but we are increasingly surrounded by devices that have the ability to watch our every movement and listen to our every word – and quite a few of them do so, and dutifully funnel at least some of this information back to their corporate masters. At the same time, government is taking a keen interest in our opinions, and it is helping social media companies decide who among us is worthy of speech (which is hardly “free,” under these circumstances). We are closer, in fact, to the techno-authoritarian nightmare of 1984 and “Big Brother” now than ever before.
Up to now, Americans might have assumed that, when they stowed their laptops and their cell phones and hopped into their cars, they were leaving the world of constant surveillance and entering a world in which they could go where they wished and be themselves without fearing that any giant corporation or government agency (besides the Highway Patrol) would be keeping tabs on them. In other words, we equate driving with the enjoyment of the “open road” and the affirmation of our uniquely American freedoms. Sadly, this attitude is becoming more and more naive by the day.
Everyone knows that federal, state, and local governments are doing their best to mandate that our cars run on batteries and not on fossil fuels. Those cars are also increasingly sophisticated in an electronic and computational sense, partly because of government safety regulations, and partly because consumers demand the latest and greatest in technology. In fact, almost every newly-built car is itself a networked device, much like a personal computer, a tablet, or a smartphone. The smarter and more autonomous these vehicles become, the more they bristle with cameras, microphones, GPS sensors, and other gadgets that can and do keep tabs on us and our movements. This raises the all-important question of who owns and controls this voluminous and intensely personal trove of data. Spoiler alert: it ain’t you!
While this data could benefit consumers in untold ways if it were theirs, the sad truth is that, for now, in the absence of federal regulation and legislation on the matter, it’s automakers who have claimed ownership and control over the lion’s share of the data that modern cars collect, store, and transmit. They use this data to better understand their customers, and they sell it to other companies, which are thrilled to gain these intimate insights into tens of millions of potential new…clients? Vicims? You be the judge.
The indecent curiosity of American corporations about our personal habits, buying preferences, and whereabouts is creepy enough, but, when you add into this equation the fact that many automakers are now foreign-owned, the issue of vehicular privacy rights becomes one that is isn’t just personal but may even affect national security. Volvo, for example, is no longer owned by harmless Swedes but by a Chinese billionaire named Li Shufu. Li is also a major shareholder in Daimler/Mercedes-Benz, and his Geely group is spreading its influence throughout the global auto industry.
Li is apparently a decent amateur poet and a family man, but whether your privacy rights are one of his top concerns is doubtful – and whether Li, and other Chinese and international interests, might ultimately be compromised by their associations with foreign governments and their security services, for instance, is something ordinary Americans should not have to worry about as they drive to work.
Luckily, Congress is starting to act on Americans’ privacy concerns, as European regulators already have. The proposed “American Data Privacy and Protection Act” has attracted broad, bipartisan support, although it has not yet become law. But will automotive data be protected in the same way?
A coalition of 16 consumer groups and free market organizations, including Steve Moore from Freedomworks, Ruth Susswein from Consumer Action, and Terry Schilling from the American Principles Project, are asking Congress to do just that. They recently sent a letter to Republican Congressmen Gus Bilirakis, Tim Walberg, and Kelly Armstrong, and the rest of the Innovation, Data, and Commerce subcommittee in the House, asking them to consider reining in automakers’ data collection efforts. They could start as soon as the Wednesday hearing they’re holding on autonomous vehicles. Let’s encourage them to be proactive and to enshrine our vehicular privacy rights in the law ASAP.
The alternative is bleak: someday our cars may become so insidiously “smart” that they start driving us over cliffs – or, worse, to wherever Bud Light is sold. No, thank you!