The Strange and Unmarked Road Ahead for Privacy

This blog has featured several posts on the Big Data and Internet of Things paradigms and the drastic effects they’re having on both innovation and creepiness (drink), but I was particularly interested in what General Motors CPO Jill Phillips, CIPP/US, CIPP/C, had to say about the privacy issues involved in the connected cars industry at last week’s Scary World of Nonstop Data Collection session at our DPI event in London, UK.

“Who would have thought a car would produce privacy issues like we’re seeing now?” she pointed out.

So what are these privacy issues? Well, some are fairly well known. I’d say the most obvious concern is location privacy, followed pretty closely by nonstop collection of driving habits. Of course, I’d have nothing to worry about because I, like all of you readers out there, follow every traffic law to a “T”. The auto insurance industry and traffic police don’t even need to see my angelic driving data.

Earlier this year, Future of Privacy Forum Policy Director Joshua Harris wrote about the Government Accountability Office report on connected cars. He said the report assessed industry practices against the Fair Information Privacy Principles, focusing primarily on “disclosures, consumer consent and control, data safeguards and retention policies and company accountability.” Really, these could be applied to apps, online behavioral advertising or just about any other privacy-related business vector. And overall, Harris was optimistic that privacy really is being considered in this burgeoning industry—and speaking of a burgeoning industry, he notes, for example, that “one in five new cars sold this year will collect and transmit data outside the vehicle.”

But Phillips, during last week’s conference, shed some additional light on the privacy obstacles facing connected cars. First of all, car companies employ engineers who’ve been trained to design cars, not digital apps. “And now we’re asking them to do these things,” she said. Will the regulators hold car engineers to the same standards? Of course they will! Luckily, Phillips and her team can train them on these standards.

Here’s another thing: Cars are built to last 10 years, or more. So how on Earth do you design them for privacy considerations that far ahead? Technology—not to mention our social norms—is changing at breakneck speeds. Will our cars require periodic software updates akin to a standard OS? There’s a generational split to consider as well. Younger drivers may be less concerned, or more apt to be aware of privacy issues, than, say, a retired driver with a big pension.

Plus, there are no real rules around vehicle data, Phillips said. Who owns the data generated by the vehicle? Who is responsible for conveying the privacy options? Is it the dealer or the manufacturer? And how are selected privacy preferences applied to different drivers who use the same vehicle? Varying legal landscapes around privacy differ around the world, and, in some cases, privacy law can conflict with other necessary requirements.

Data security is also a difficult issue with which to grapple. For most, encryption is info-sec best practice 101, but Phillips said encryption can actually affect the performance of a vehicle.

Which brings us, perhaps, to the unique issue of privacy and connected cars. “The auto dilemma is truly new,” Phillips said, “because there is an actual safety issue” at play here. Harm will be tangible and lives can be on the line. So how should safety be balanced with privacy?

Remember, strong encryption can hinder the performance of a vehicle, so how much of a reality is nefarious hacking with harmful intent? Many have written about this possibility and its consequences.

And what about crashes?

Crash prevention is one of the biggest and most exciting reasons we’re moving toward smart cars, right? With machine-to-machine sensors, auto accidents will plummet, they say. The roads will be safer. Fatalities will dwindle. In the future, perhaps we’ll even set our coordinates and sit back and let the car take us home.

But, privacy concerns may prompt some drivers to turn off their geolocation services. “When you want a service, you want it,” Phillips said. “When you need it, you need it, but if I want to turn off my geolocation services because of privacy concerns, how do I know if I’m about to get in an accident and then need it?” By that time, it may be too late for the driver.

Another thing about crash prevention is that it takes algorithms to guide machines to make optimal choices. And here’s where privacy, technology and ethics get weird and scary.

A report from Wired, “The Robot Car of Tomorrow Might Just Be Designed To Hit You,” this week dove deeper into this issue. Essentially, as a worst-case scenario—which programmers must consider—algorithms have to be built to optimize the safest crash. So, for example, if a car has the choice to hit either a Volvo or Pinto, under the most-safe ethical regime, it will hit the Volvo because it’s a much safer car. Likewise, if a car has the choice to hit a motorcyclist wearing a helmet or one not wearing a helmet, in theory, the rider with protection will have the greatest chance of surviving.

But doesn’t this create a race-to-the-bottom paradigm? Knowing that cars will likely hit Volvos or bikers with helmets would likely hurt Volvo and helmet sales. And doesn’t this just bring us back to an unsafe environment?

And this gives rise to a new privacy issue as well. What if you don’t broadcast what you are—Volvo or helmet-wearer—in an attempt to be better protected from the above scenarios? Or, alternatively, what if you falsely broadcast that you’re a Pinto, even though you’re driving a Volvo, for that same protection? Really, privacy can have entirely different values depending on the person, so there need to be options for what you can do. But then there are legal issues. Should we allow people to cloak that they’re driving Volvos, for example?

The point of this last analysis of ethics is just one more example of the difficulty that technology creates for us all. In a lot of fields, privacy pros will have difficult choices ahead. For Jill Phillips, and those in the auto industry, this difficulty is already a reality.

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US


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  • Jon Neiditz @jonneiditz May 17, 2014

    Problem: 'But, privacy concerns may prompt some drivers to turn off their geolocation services. “When you want a service, you want it,” Phillips said. “When you need it, you need it, but if I want to turn off my geolocation services because of privacy concerns, how do I know if I’m about to get in an accident and then need it?” By that time, it may be too late for the driver.'
    One solution: Have geolocation services auto-deploy in certain types of accidents, like airbags.


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