John Mac Ghlionn

Is your car snooping on your sex life?

Yes, according to a recent report

  • From Spectator Life

Most drivers have no idea just how much data their vehicles are collecting. The cars of today are less computers on wheels than they are monitoring monstrosities – and some of the spying is truly shocking.

Cars can tap into your search history, and many people’s search histories are, for lack of a better word, filthy

Tech experts at the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit that promotes internet privacy, recently turned their attention to 25 leading car brands, including the likes of Tesla and Nissan. Every single manufacturer they looked at was found to collect far more personal data than is necessary, often about things that have absolutely nothing to do with driving. What is particularly worrying about cars, according to the researchers, is that they ‘have so many more data-collecting opportunities than other products and apps we use – more than even smart devices in our homes or the cell phones we take wherever we go’. 

Modern cars can collect inordinate amounts of personal information, from how you interact with your vehicle, to ‘the connected services you use in your car’. Your car is very often linked to your phone, meaning many car manufacturers can access at least part of what’s on there. In a write-up of the report, the researchers warn that car manufacturers can gather information on a variety of different things, including your sexual proclivities. Some manufacturers – like Audi, Hyundai, and Mercedes Benz, for example – even snoop on the photos on your phone, your calendar, and what you have scheduled on your to-do list.

Manufacturers can gather extra information about you from third-party sources like Google Maps. The researchers note that many of the cars they analysed collect information about the world around you and your car. In other words, your car’s sensors can record information about the outside world (the buildings, the pedestrians, the signs, the weather conditions, etc.) as you drive. This information can be taken by the manufacturers. Some will use it for themselves. Others, meanwhile may decide to sell the information to a third party. 

Nissan, one of the most popular car brands in the world, was ranked as one of the very worst data-abusing offenders, largely because it collects ‘some of the creepiest categories of data the researchers have ever seen’, including information pertaining to your ‘sexual activity’ (the Nissan Qashqai is one of the UK’s most popular cars). Cars can tap into your search history, and many people’s search histories are, for lack of a better word, filthy. The more data they and third parties have on you, the more they know about you. Data is, as the cliché goes, the new oil. Any data, in the eyes of unscrupulous harvesters, is good data. As the authors of the Mozilla report note, car brands might combine the information they have on you with personal data they buy from third parties. ‘Over-collecting, combining, sharing,’ these are all common practices, we’re told. 

Kia, another big brand that is quickly growing in popularity in the UK, also has a penchant for collecting information about your ‘sex life’. Take a quick look at Kia’s privacy policy for owners, and you’ll find that they may have already sold information about your ‘sex life or sexual orientation’ to third parties.

One of the authors of the sobering report, Jen Caltider, tells me that unless we, the drivers, ‘stand up now and demand the car companies do better and put pressure on our elected officials to pass strong, consumer-focused privacy laws,’ then data harvesting will only get worse. ‘If we do nothing and let automotive companies continue on the path they are on – with widespread, rampant data collection, sharing, and selling from vehicles that look more like robots than cars – then in ten years things could be pretty ugly,’ she adds. 

How is the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence changing the data harvesting game? ‘AI,’ she suggests, ‘is certainly speeding up our loss of privacy with the vast amount of data AIs must collect to train their algorithms.’ How bad might it get? ‘As a privacy advocate [I hope] there are still things we consumers can do to demand better privacy protections so our future isn’t as dystopian as we’re all worried it might become.’ In short, the quality and quantity of data collected on you, the driver, is likely to increase. Dramatically so.

Worryingly, when it comes to privacy, Caltider and his colleagues ‘found no good car companies.’ Basically, ‘there was bad and then there was worse, leaving consumers with little good options when buying a new car these days.’ I’m off to buy a new bike.