The Golden Rule - Do Unto Others

Technology is making life easier and safer. But at what cost?

REMEMBER WHEN YOUR CAR WAS A REFUGE, where the outside world stayed outside? Or when keeping score meant sitting in the bleachers, not contesting your health rating with an insurer? Yes, the new tools of the digital age add to our convenience, efficiency and instant gratification. But there’s a trade-off: The more progress we achieve, the more of ourselves we expose. And while what we gain is obvious, the stories that follow remind us that wherever we go now and whatever we do, someone-or something-is probably watching.

The Golden Rule - Do Unto Others

WHILE GASSING UP HIS RENTED VEHICLE, a driver finds his debit card has been declined. Why? He’s been hit with $450 in mysterious fees. A hidden on-board device, he learns, has caught him speeding three times. A woman becomes terrified by her ex-boyfriend’s stalking. How does he always know where she is? Police find the answer under the hood of her car: a Global Positioning System (GPS) near the radiator. A California commuter with a FasTrak tag zips along a Bay Area highway. Microchip readers log data from the tag, and it’s sent to a database that monitors traffic, where it’s presumably safe from hackers.

Welcome to the brave new world, automotive division, where a slew of gizmos-from black boxes to GPS navigators to smart tollbooths-is creating cars that don’t just take us from point A to point B, but track how we get there Few would deny that technological advances like anti-lock brakes, air bags and traction control have made cars far less dangerous. Now, computer tracking is making the driving experience even safer and far more convenient. It’s also helping law enforcement, and promising benefits for insurers and policyholders.

For all the good, though, some see the new technologies chipping away at personal privacy. “We don’t have much federal privacy legislation when it comes to these new technologies yet,” says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a research group. “And there’s going to be a massive amount of infor-mation floating around.” One source of that information: vehicular-event data recorders (EDRs), the so-called black boxes that log everything from braking to seat-belt use when an accident occurs. They are now built into 25 million U.S.- made cars, and are standard in all GM and some Ford models. Police increasingly use them to decide who’s to blame in crashes.

In May 2003, for instance, Edwin Matos, 48, was convicted of vehicular man-slaughter for killing two teenage girls in Florida. Data from his 2002 Pontiac Trans Am’s EDR showed him driving 104 mph at the time of the accident. Says Michael Horowitz, the Florida state attorney in the case: “I think [black boxes] are opening up possibilities in cases where there isn’t a lot of physical evidence.” You could say that the EDR holds the car’s DNA. And that’s worrisome, because anyone can buy a device that taps into many EDRs. One popular model, Vetronix’s Crash Data Retrieval System, goes for $2,495, and is used by forensic specialists hired by insurers to probe accidents. But a shady body-shop owner can get one, too, and then sell the data to an insurer, which could use it to rewrite a driver’s policy.

Ohio-based Progressive Insurance has already tested a program-dubbed usage- based auto insurance-utilizing GPS data. In 1998 about 1,000 Texas customers allowed Progressive to outfit their vehicles with GPS collection devices, which pinpoint location data via a 24-satellite network. The devices tracked how far motorists drove, at what time of day and to what type of area (urban, suburban or rural). Driving less, being careful and avoiding high-theft areas cut some drivers’ bills by an average of 25 per-cent. Such a usage-based program hits high-mileage motorists with the steepest premiums. Drivers in that category-long-distance commuters, for instance-probably wouldn’t embrace the concept. But others do, including the EPA, which sees it as a good way to cut emissions. Progressive says GPS technology’s high cost halted a wider rollout at the time. With the cost falling, usage-based insurance could become common. GPS setups are now so cheap that some fear a wave of automotive stalking. In 2002 Paul Seidler of Kenosha, Wiscon-sin, was charged with stalking and other crimes for placing a GPS device in his ex-girlfriend’s car and monitoring it from his laptop. (He struck a plea deal with prosecutors.) “Very few [stalking] statutes mention GPS by name,” says Tracy Bahm, director of the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime. “There’s a big question mark on how these cases will be treated.”

But these devices help the good guys too. Prosecutors in the Scott Peterson case have been allowed to admit potentially damning evidence from his vehicles’ GPS. The data, they allege, show Peterson, accused of killing his pregnant wife. Laci, paying five visits to the California marina where her body was eventually discovered following her Christmas Eve 2002 disappearance.

What if you want to be tracked? Intelligent transportation technology has been a boon there too. With more than two million subscribers, GM’s OnStar subsidiary can link a distressed driver to an operator, who can alert emergency personnel; the GPS data zeros in on a car’s location, so help can arrive promptly. That’s critical for drivers stranded on strange, unfamiliar roads and unable to give exact directions. OnStar logs some 16,000 roadside assistance calls each and every month. That’s a lot of drivers-who you can bet will never give up their GPS. Millions of commuters feel the same about their toll tags. Yet motorists who use services like E-Z Pass in the Northeast, California’s FasTrak and Houston’s EZ Tag may forget that their movements are recorded by the radio-frequency identification tags on their windshields. Authorities can get that data with a court order-and solve crimes. They did just that in 1997, using records to find a slain New Jersey restaurateur and then track down the men who confessed to killing him.

In the Bay Area, the FasTrak system monitors vehicles as they travel through the region. Overhead detectors log the location and time of FasTrak tags on passing vehicles. The data is encrypted to protect it from hackers, and fed into a centralized computer system. The information helps keep traffic flowing and is used to update real-time maps on the Web. An important safety use of RFID tags is likely to be on tires. After faulty Firestone tires were tied to dozens of deaths in the ‘90s, Congress passed a law to prevent a repeat. Regulators are developing a plan to require soft-tire warning systems on future vehicles. A possibility: RFID-based systems that alert drivers about under-inflation. By giving each tire its own radio signature, the tags might also be useful in the event of a recall.

Benefits aside, the biggest privacy issue at stake may be how much of the data gathered is available to third parties (and not lust insurers-think the government or your boss too). Already, many firms that use professional drivers are placing GPS gear in vehicles to ensure employees aren’t goofing off. Some nonprofessional drivers fear similar tracking if they subscribe to a GPS service. “People love the idea of having their car located when it’s stolen,” says Brian Moody, an expert with a consumer automotive resource. “But they might not want people to know that they go to a strip club at night.” Firms that market these smart systems generally adopt privacy policies that bar such breaches. “We don’t sell their data to anybody else.” says OnStar spokeswoman Geri Lama. “We don’t do anything extracurricular.”

Among the requests OnStar would reject: a parent trying to find a teen out with the family car, or someone asking about a spouse’s driving habits. OnStar, Lama says, purges all GPS data from its computers after a year, does not keep it elsewhere and doesn’t use it in any other way. Still, the company’s privacy policy states: “We cannot guarantee that your private communications and other personally identifiable information will never be disclosed in ways not described in this policy.” Among those ways: law enforcement getting recent GPS data with a court order; clerical or computer errors making data accessible; and hackers swiping data tied to a car -travel patterns or even credit-card information-by piercing security systems.

Powerful technological safeguards can help ease privacy fears. FasTrak has earned plaudits for its encryption techniques. FasTrak also pledges a nightly purge of the database used to update its Web maps. Together, these precautions should thwart any hacker seeking to track a driver over time. Legal protections aren’t so advanced

Last year, California became the first state to regulate EDR data banning anyone other than a vehicle’s owner and, under certain conditions, law enforcement to access such data. But so far no federal legislation answers such questions as how long GPS data can be stored, for example, or under what circumstances authorities can request data from smart tollbooths. “There are new technologies all the time, and the laws need to be amended to catch up,” says Bob Kelly, an attorney with Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, who advises the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a trade group. Responsible companies, he says, won’t abuse customer privacy.

Acme Rent-a-Car certainly heard criticism for its GPS tracking scheme. Responding to a complaint from James Turner, the rental-car customer stuck with those $450 charges, Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection moved against Acme, claiming the fines were illegal and ruling that while Acme can add GPS units to cars, it can’t levy speeding fines. (Acme has appealed the ruling, partially, it argues, because its contract clearly warned about the speeding surcharge.)

Of course, you can dodge surveillance. Buy a car with no black box (while you can), spurn GPS (keep maps handy) and pay tolls in cash (enjoy those lines). In other words, embrace inconvenience. Barring a privacy catastrophe bigger than Acme’s fines and the rare stalking, most drivers will take the road of least resistance.


READERS DIGEST, July 2004, (pgs.79-85)

Are car tracking devices, like OnStar .keeping you safe or invading your privacy?

WELL - - -.Sound off at


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