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Is your car spying on you?

Carlton Boyce / 10 March 2016 ( 12 April 2017 )

New cars will be fitted with a device to alert the authorities if there's an accident - but could this safety feature be used to spy on unsuspecting motorists?

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All cars sold in the EU will soon be fitted with an emergency device that will alert the authorities in the event that the car is involved in an accident. 

The aim is to make cars safer by enabling them to alert the emergency services, even when the driver and passengers can’t, or where cross-border language issues might cause unnecessary delays.

Advocates of the system claim that it could halve response times, which will reduce the severity of injuries and number of deaths. All car manufacturers must comply by March 2018.

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Misuse by advertisers and governments

This seems like a very sensible idea but, as ever, the devil is in the details and some consumer groups are already warning that the data the systems will collect could be misused by unscrupulous advertisers and government agencies.

The new system, called eCall, must be in place in all new cars sold after March 2018. At its most basic, eCall records the make and model of vehicle, the type of fuel it uses, the time of the accident, and the location, as well as whether the car’s airbags have been deployed or not.

However, many manufacturers are already choosing to record far more than the basics required by law by way of an on-board Event Data Recorder (or EDR), raising concerns that this information could easily be misused, with critics pointing out the data being collected has a monetary value. 

They fear that manufacturers are, or will be, tempted to raise extra revenue by selling this data to advertisers: as the old saying goes, if you’re not paying for a product then you are the product…

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What information will be collected?

The consumer group, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has expressed its concern that manufacturers must be clear about the information they are collecting, and how they will be handling it.  

Testing the BMW i3 and the 320d, the FIA found that both of these models send data back to BMW that show how and where the car has been driven, the destinations that were programmed into the on-board sat-nav system, and the information that was imported by the driver’s Smartphone when it was synched to the car’s Bluetooth system.

In addition, the electric BMW i3 records information about the car’s battery, its 16 most recent charging locations, and the previous 100 parking locations, all of which is transmitted back to BMW automatically when the ignition is turned off.

This information, or metadata, also includes various driving metrics, such as intensity of braking, steering wheel angle, throttle position, engine speed, and the prevailing road conditions. The EDR doesn’t collect information such as time, date, and location but then this information is collected by the car’s sat-nav system anyway.

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How could the data be used?

None of this is sinister in itself, but it does beg the question as to why it is being recorded and transmitted when it has little, if anything, to do with the stated aim of automatically alerting the authorities to an emergency and meeting the manufacturer’s legal duties

The answer appears to be a commercial one, because taken together this data enables an advertiser to target the driver with tailored information, which is exactly what a motorist in the Netherlands claims happened to him.  

He says that when he was driving past a service station alone he received no message, but when he passed the same spot with four passengers in the car with him (something that the car could establish as it knows the number of seat belts that are in use), it asked him: “Don’t you want to take a break now?”

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Speeding and careless drivers

And an already grey area starts to take an even darker hue when law enforcement takes an interest in the same information: The data that the emergency services need and advertisers are interested in, can also be used to demonstrate if and when a driver has been speeding or driving recklessly. 

The police in the UK have already started to ask for access to your car’s ‘Black Box’ or EDR in the event of an accident, and car insurance companies have confirmed that they will hand over this data to the police, even when the EDR has been fitted voluntarily in an attempt to reduce insurance premiums.

Car manufacturers are understandably shy about which of their models are already fitted with an EDR, but given that 93% of cars sold in the United States of America were fitted with them in 2013, it would be fair to assume that almost all new cars sold in the UK are similarly equipped.

You have been warned: your car really is spying on you, and there is nothing you can do about it.

For more tips and useful information, browse our motoring articles.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.