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Under the hood of auto privacy policies

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WORLD Radio - Under the hood of auto privacy policies

A recent Mozilla report indicates that auto manufacturers have wide-ranging access to and control over user data


The sticker price hangs in the window of an unsold vehicle at a Lincoln dealership. Associated Press/Photo by David Zalubowski

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Is your car listening to you?

KITT: I’m the voice of Knight Industry 2000’s microprocessor. KITT for easy reference. “Kitt” if you prefer.

KNIGHT: I want to know who you are and how you’re listening in?

KITT: May I suggest you put the car in auto cruise mode for safety’s sake?

KNIGHT: No, you may not. So clam up.

KITT: As you wish, Mr. Knight.

KNIGHT: I can’t believe this. A car that talks back to me.

REICHARD: [laugh] That’s from the TV show Knight Rider. It ran between 1982 and 1986 on NBC, and how prescient it was.

EICHER: No kidding. Now it’s commonplace for new cars not just to talk back, but to listen in.

A new report from the tech company Mozilla says that cars are picking up, and passing on a lot more about you than you might realize.

WORLD’s Mary Muncy has our story.

AMBER MOORE: I can just turn it on. It says, Hello, Amber.

MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: When Amber Moore starts up her new 2023 Subaru Ascent, the dashboard lights up. Between the speed and RPM gauges, a little green eye appears—telling her the car’s inside-facing camera is on and watching her.

MOORE: If I scratch my head while I'm driving, it'll tell me to keep my eyes on the road.

MUNCY: Oh, my goodness.

MOORE: Like it totally watches you.

Moore says her husband thinks it’s a little creepy.

MOORE: He's like, it's the evil red eye.

The car’s computer is constantly collecting data on where she goes, her safety habits, even what she looks like. These features and others are relatively standard across the spectrum of new cars.

And it’s a little concerning.

SOUND: [Door closing]

So, I went to a few dealerships to see what happens to all of this data.

MUNCY: Hi my name is Mary Muncy, and I’m a reporter for WORLD Magazine.

But the folks at the Nissan dealership said they couldn’t talk to the press, and neither could the other three dealerships I tried.

But a trade group representing the manufacturers of most cars and trucks sold in the U.S. did tell the Associated Press that they have broad privacy policies based on the consumer’s consent, because the patchwork of privacy laws across the U.S. makes it difficult to make more specific, cohesive policies.

But some people don’t think that’s enough.

The nonprofit Mozilla Foundation reviewed the privacy policies of 25 car brands—from BMW to Tesla and said they were all bad.

This affects newer cars that have the capacity to connect to your phone or sensors for self-driving capabilities, so if you still have a tape player you’re probably safe.

ZOE MACDONALD: The car companies are essentially doing all of the things that we don't like to see in privacy policies.

That’s Zoe MacDonald. She helped create Mozilla’s report.

MACDONALD: So they collect a ton of very personal data. They don't let their users have control over that data. They also often share and sell that data. And then they also, they don't have a very good track record of actually protecting and keeping that data safe and secure.

That data can include everything from your social security number to your religion.

Some of the privacy policies even mention being able to collect information on your sexual activity.

MACDONALD: Essentially everything that's going on, they have the ability to collect it, and they often do collect it.

Once they have that data they can do just about anything they want with it.

Mozilla found that most car companies would share personal information. And about three-quarters of them said they would sell it.

Most of the companies also said they would share drivers’ information with law enforcement upon request without requiring a warrant.

MACDONALD: Just for context, this is not normal. This level of data collection, and this amount of sharing and selling of your personal data isn't standard even in like, in today's data collecting world or with connected products or with your cell phone or with your smart home.

So why does American law allow this to happen? The answer is a bit complicated.

Colin Bennett is a professor of political science at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and has studied privacy for over 30 years.

He says most of the world has decided to solve personal privacy problems with comprehensive privacy laws. But the U.S. is regulating it in a piecemeal fashion.

COLIN BENNETT: You have a situation in the U.S. where huge areas of your economy is not properly covered by data protection and privacy law.

In the U.S., eleven states have comprehensive laws protecting consumers’ data privacy, while another 16 state legislatures have introduced bills to regulate it.

Car manufacturers also have a set of rules that they’ve agreed to.

BENNETT: They rely on you know, earlier processes where a consumer would have consented without really knowing what they're consenting to. And and that's a real problem.

That’s also true under Canada’s stricter privacy laws.

Bennett says consumers don’t have much choice in the matter. The manufacturers say that if you turn off some of those features, the car may not work properly or you may not be notified of some essential defect.

Mozilla also pointed out that since all of the policies are bad, consumers can’t simply switch to a brand they’re more comfortable with.

BENNETT: In order to exercise your choices to exercise your options, you've got to be extremely diligent, do a lot of homework. And most people like me do not have the time or the interest.

For now, Bennett says if you’re concerned and car savvy, you can turn off the features you’re not comfortable with. And depending on what state you live in, you may be able to track what’s happening to your data.

He also says that if you’re going to go buy a new car, ask why the dealership needs certain information. And if they can’t give you a good answer, don’t give it to them.

SOUND: [Driving in car]

When Amber Moore rolled her Subaru off the lot in June, the benefits outweighed the risks in her mind. She likes the features in her car and plans to keep most of them. Her favorite feature is the 24 cupholders.

MOORE: There's three-three in each door. And then two here. There's, there's four in the back doors there.

That might even be out of KITT’s league.

MUSIC: [KNIGHT RIDER THEME SONG]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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