2003 12 29 NYT This Car Can Talk. What It Says May Cause Concern. – New York Times
This Car Can Talk. What It Says May Cause Concern.
Last year, Curt Dunnam bought a Chevrolet Blazer with one of the most popular new features in high-end cars: the OnStar personal security system.
The heavily advertised communications and tracking feature is used nationwide by more than two million drivers, who simply push a button to connect, via a built-in cellphone, to a member of the OnStar staff. A Global Positioning System, or G.P.S., helps the employee give verbal directions to the driver or locate the car after an accident. The company can even send a signal to unlock car doors for locked-out owners, or blink the car’s lights and honk the horn to help people find their cars in an endless plain of parking spaces.
A big selling point for the system is its use in thwarting car thieves. Once an owner reports to the police that a car has been stolen, the company, which was started by General Motors, can track it to help intercept the thieves, a service it performs about 400 times each month.
But for Mr. Dunnam, the more he learned about his car’s security features, the less secure he felt. A research support specialist at Cornell University, he is concerned about privacy. He has enough technical knowledge to worry that someone else — say, law enforcement officers, or even hackers — could listen in on his phone calls, or gain control over his automotive systems without his knowledge or consent. Any gadget that can track a carjacker, he reasons, can just as readily be used to track him.
”While I don’t believe G.M. intentionally designed this system to facilitate Orwellian activities, they sure have made it easy,” he said.
OnStar is one of a growing number of automated eyes and ears that enhance driving safety and convenience but that also increase the potential for surveillance. Privacy advocates say that the rise of the automotive technologies, including electronic toll areas, location-tracking devices, ”black box” data recorders like those found on airplanes and even tiny radio ID tags in tires, are changing the nature of Americans’ relationship with their cars.
Beth Givens, founder of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said the car had long been a symbol of Kerouac-flavored freedom, and a haven. ”You can talk to yourself in your car, you can scream at yourself in your car, you can go there to be alone, you can ponder the heavens, you can think deep thoughts all alone, you can sing,” she said. With the growing number of monitoring systems, she said, ”Now, the car is Big Brother.”
James E. Hall, a transportation lawyer and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the monitoring systems presented a subtle blend of benefit and risk. ”We are moving toward a kind of automobile that nobody’s ever known,” he said. ”It’s mostly good news, but there are negative things that we will have to work through.”
Mr. Dunnam said he had become even more concerned because of a federal appeals court case involving a criminal investigation in Nevada, in which federal authorities had demanded that a company attach a wiretap to tracking services like those installed in his car. The suit did not reveal which company was involved. A three-judge panel in San Francisco rejected the request, but not on privacy grounds; the panel said the wiretap would interfere with the operation of the safety services.
OnStar has said that its equipment was not involved in that case. An OnStar spokeswoman, Geri Lama, suggested that Mr. Dunnam’s worries were overblown. The signals that the company sends to unlock car doors or track location-based information can be triggered only with a secure exchange of specific identifying data, which ought to deter all but the most determined hackers, she said.
As for law enforcement, the company said it released location data about customers only under a court order. ”We have no choice but to be responsive to court orders,” Ms. Lama said.
Other information systems being added to cars can be used for tracking as well. Electronic toll systems are convenient for commuters, but the information is increasingly being used to track movements. When police were trying to track the car of Jonathan P. Luna, an assistant United States attorney who was killed earlier this month, they pulled the records of his charges on his E-ZPass account, which led them to Pennsylvania, where his body was found. Such records have also been used in civil cases like child custody disputes.
Of all of the new automotive technologies, none presents a more complex set of benefits and risks than the ”black box” sensors that have already been placed in millions of cars nationwide. The latest models capture the last few seconds of data — like vehicle speed, seatbelt use and whether the driver applied the brakes — before a collision.
Such detailed reporting of accidents raises privacy concerns, said experts at Consumers Union, which has filed comments with the federal government warning about possible violations of privacy. Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel at Consumers Union, said her group recognized the potential safety benefits of the reporting but wanted the government to ”proceed with caution.”
People’s cars have already started turning their owners in. Scott E. Knight, a California man, was convicted last year for the killing of a Merced, Calif., resident in a March 2001 hit-and-run accident; police tracked him down because the OnStar system in his Chevy Tahoe alerted OnStar when the airbag was set off.
Transportation experts say that if these sensor systems can provide crucial information for emergency aid workers and for vehicle research, lives will be saved. The federal government is considering rules that would standardize the information that black boxes provide, along with ways to gather the information.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association is working to develop a worldwide standard for black boxes. Tom Kowalick, who is co-chairman of the effort, calls the program ”quite simply a matter of life and death for millions of motor vehicle crash victims.”
Mr. Hall, the former federal official, is the other co-chairman of the effort, and he agreed that the technology should be used to detect dangerous car models. The privacy concerns can be minimized, he said, by applying the technology to commercial vehicles and fleets. ”There are enough vehicles out there,” he said, ”to amass evidence, to provide you with the type of information you need without having to even address the subject of the privately owned vehicles right now.”
Surveillance technologies are easy to buy and even easier to abuse, privacy experts say. Paul A. Seidler was arrested last year in Kenosha, Wis., after he installed a tracking device in an ex-girlfriend’s car. According to the police report, the ex-girlfriend, Connie Adams, complained that ”she could not understand how the defendant always knew where she was in her vehicle at all times.”
Police inspected her 1999 Chevrolet Cavalier and found a small black box near the radiator that beamed the car’s position to Mr. Seidler’s computer. In June, Mr. Seidler was sentenced to nine months in jail for stalking Ms. Adams.
The use of location tracking is growing. Law enforcement agents have used similar devices to chart suspects’ travels, and a California company now offers a similar device so that parents can monitor their teenagers’ driving.
Last year a small rental car company in New Haven, Acme Rent-a-Car, angered customers by using global positioning to fine them $150 for speeding. The state’s department of consumer protection declared the fines illegal — but not the tracking. The company appealed the consumer agency’s action, but in July a state judge rejected the appeal.
Ian Ayres of Yale University, a law professor who has examined the issue, predicted that regardless of what happened with Acme, ”within a decade all our car insurance companies will be offering us discounts if we will commit to Acme-like contracts — if we agree not to speed.” and the use of tracking technology will grow ”even if they don’t give us a discount,” he said, because ”all the parents will want these boxes in their cars to know whether their kids are speeding.”
In fact, one of the largest insurance companies in the United States, Progressive Auto Insurance, has already tested policies in Texas that tied insurance rates to car usage as monitored by global positioning.
Tires, too, can tell on drivers. This year, Michelin began implanting match-head-sized chips in tires that can be read remotely. The company started using the chips to provide manufacturing information that could help spot failure trends and to comply with a federal law requiring close tracking of tires for recalls. But privacy activists fear that the chips, which can be loaded with a car’s vehicle identification number, would allow yet another form of automated vehicle tracking. ”You basically have Web browser ‘cookies’ in your tires,” said Richard M. Smith, an independent privacy researcher.
Aviel D. Rubin, the technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that every new technology with the potential to invade privacy was introduced with pledges that it would be used responsibly.
But over time, he said, the desire of law enforcement and business to use the data overtook the early promises. ”The only way to get real privacy,” he said, ”is not to collect the information in the first place.”