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Vehicle Technology and Consumer Privacy

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Automobile Consumer Coalition/Car Help Canada




This report explores the rapid growth of technologies in North America and Europe that record the actions and locations of private vehicles, their implications for motorists’ privacy, and ways of dealing with them. The technologies reviewed include: event data recorders (EDR), global positioning systems (GPS), vehicle telematics (communications devices), radio frequency identification (RFID) and automatic plate number recognition (APNR).

The author concludes that motorists’ behaviours will be increasingly tracked, due to road safety, congestion, environmental concerns and the efficiencies and convenience these increasingly inexpensive technologies offer. Interested third parties include transportation departments and the police, automobile manufacturers, service providers and insurance companies.

Motorists have long required drivers and vehicle licenses and, over time, transportation departments have developed vast databases on current and previous owners which are too widely accessible. The author recommends more restricted access due to the risks of personal harm, identify theft, unwanted solicitations and overreaching state agencies.

EDRs assist in crash investigations but are opposed by some car manufacturers as they can result in motorists having their own cars testifying against them. The author disagrees as motorists are on public roads, and recommends that EDR be enhanced and made mandatory and accessible to interested parties, including the motorist. However, the recording time of such devices should be strictly limited to no more than several seconds before and after a crash occurs. He also promotes driver condition monitoring (but not recording), to alert motorists to drowsiness and lane wandering.

The author concludes that GPS and related technologies should be a motorist’s choice, based on full information about such privacy implications as possible third party access to their location, direction, speed and even conversations. Motorists should always retain the right to have such devices removed from their vehicles on demand. He recognizes the real and potential opportunities for abuse that automatic cameras and APNR can pose, but also acknowledges their road safety value in some circumstances and that they are no more invasive than being stopped by the police. He recommends several safeguards to preclude abuse, such as not assessing demerit points when the driver is unknown.

The author points out that the right to individual privacy when inside a vehicle has not been held to be a priority in Canadian and American courts, in spite of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the U.S. constitution. The author also presents the case that increased use of transponders and RFID is inevitable, to control congested roads, collect tolls and parking fees. These technologies pose the greatest threat to privacy if they lead to large, centralized databases shared by different companies and jurisdictions. This threat could be alleviated through the use of prepaid “smart” transponders that would not require the storage of personal data. Such decentralized technology should be put into place before centralized technology becomes the norm.

The author finally makes numerous recommendations regarding protection of the personal data gathering by these new technologies, including encryption, restricted access, avoidance of data matching and full information to motorists.

This document is available in the following language(s):

English only

OPC Funded Project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

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Canada M6G 2N2

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