Posted in Technology

Your next car – perhaps an electric vehicle – will track you, but so does your phone

traffic crossing in shenzen, China, photo by robert Bye
Shenzhen, China by Robert Bye.

Electric vehicles are changing how we move around and think about road traffic in general. One of the innovations of the battery powered vehicle is that cars automatically communicate with the car manufacturers’ data center, informing how the vehicle is performing. The technology of an electric car is controlled by computers since batteries and other components depend on constant monitoring. Features, like self-driving, or computer assisted driving add complexity to the car. To a certain extent, one can understand it makes sense to monitor what is going on in an electric car, especially, for researching problems and accidents.

In China, data collection and monitoring of electric vehicles has been taken a step further. The government requires all automakers to transmit vehicle data to authorities who have dedicated data collection centers for storing and studying the vehicle data.

AP reported about a large office in Shanghai – The Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center – whose mission is to collect data from all electric vehicles moving along the streets of the region and produce meaningful statistics from the data.

When an automaker wants to sell electric cars in China, it has to modify the car software so that the vehicles can send 61 data items, including each vehicle’s live location, details about battery and engine performance to government data centers.

More than 200 automakers, including Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, Nissan, Mitsubishi, General Motors, and Tesla are passing on vehicle data to these Chinese data collection centers. Even though electric car owners should be aware of the data collection conducted by the car manufacturer, Chinese government’s data collection is performed without car owners’ knowledge. There is no way to prevent data collection.

A couple of years ago, renowned computer security expert Bruce Schneier famously tried to buy a new car in the US that would come without internet connection. He failed. There wasn’t any cars available. He had to order a car that connects to the cloud and transmits data to the manufacturer. By the way, he didn’t buy an electric vehicle, but a traditional combustion engine car.

Chinese officials say the data collected from vehicles is for public safety, industrial development and infrastructure planning. The chief of the Shanghai data collection center could think of two other uses for the data: the police may ask for information about a specific vehicle, and the center may sell data to other parties. The chief said they have already explored the possibilities of marketing the data, but haven’t done it yet.

landwind, chinese electric vehicle

Data is not only collected, it may be traded with other businesses

The way automakers and the Chinese government trade the data they have collected (without permission in some cases) has similarities with the trade of smartphone users’ private data. Google, Facebook, and other internet companies that collect the live user data trade it with other companies (and possibly with governments).

As research reports have pointed out time after time, the collection of personal information on the internet is rampant in some parts of the world. Even though laws in many countries, for instance, in European Union (where the GDPR regulation cam into effect in 2018) prohibit personal data collection without consent, it is out of control as a recent research defined it.

Is it even possible to prevent data collection by electric vehicles and smartphones?

Probably only very few people are willing to give up their phones to protect their private lives. This is where some software developers and hardware manufacturers see a business opportunity: producing safe and secure products for consumers.

To name a few, Purism smartphone is built on open source Linux operating system, has created an operating system software eOS based on Android that doesn’t connect to Google, and the Pinephone is built on Linux software as well.

Electric cars are a different story. While it is possible to install another operating system on most Android phones, hacking the software of an e-car is risky and nearly impossible (if you don’t have inside information and tools from the manufacturer).

A mobile phone can be switched off or it can have a dedicated small case made of signal-blocking material if constant tracking is troubling you. The data transmission signal of a car can be, however, difficult to block.

A phone is such a personal product that it knows almost everything about its owner once the collected data is cross-referenced and analysed. The product follows its owner everywhere. It knows its owner’s thoughts, desires, plans, travels and history.

It may be a small consolation, but electric vehicles only know where they have been, when and how fast they have travelled. The driver can park the car in front of a pet shop, but enter a bar. The vehicle won’t be aware of it, like the phone will.

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