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How Your Dumb Car Is Getting Smarter

Is your car spying on you?

The question might seem ridiculous, but as technology advances, your car will know an increasing amount of information about you.

Eventually, that hunk of metal in your driveway could morph into the CIA on wheels.

Indeed, there are already 23 million cars worldwide that are connected to the internet in some form. And this slick fleet of smarter “connected cars” is becoming our friend and enemy at the same time.

They’ll know when you’re speeding… when you’re at the psychiatrist’s office… even when you hit the drive-thru for a greasy burger with large fries. You can lie to your doctor, but your car will know the truth.

Here’s what it means for you as a driver…

Are You Connected? You Soon Will Be…

It wasn’t long ago that your car was dumb. It didn’t know anything.

However, the world is changing.

We’ve written about the rise of “connected cars” here several times – both in terms of “infotainment” and wireless connectivity.

Intel (INTC) says connected cars are the third-fastest-growing technological device after phones and tablets, with automakers spending much more of their budgets on infotainment and in-car technology.

Indeed, my colleague, Louis Basenese, told our Digital Fortunes subscribers last week that the auto industry is now the third-largest group of technology patent filers.

Many of those patents concern technologies for the connected car, as I alluded to above. In other words, turning cars into mobile computers – connecting them to the internet and giving drivers the same applications in the car that they have on their mobile devices.

Ultimately, this means that our cars can feed information like speed, mileage, gas range, directions, and diagnostics to us – and the internet. It also means our cars can connect to email and text messaging, and get information like weather and traffic conditions, parking spaces, gas prices, and deals at local shops and restaurants.

We’ll also be able to link up wirelessly with other connected cars in the vicinity.

When paired with touchscreen technology, this has undoubted benefits in terms of making our lives easier, more convenient, and safer.

But there’s a dark side, too – and the implications for your privacy are staggering…

The Slippery Slope of Data Collection

By nature, “connected” means connected to something (or someone).

And you won’t be surprised that the government wants to be one of those things.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is proposing that auto manufacturers share driving data with them so they can develop better regulations.

On the face of it, this doesn’t seem too scary – especially since they’re only requesting aggregate data, rather than individual data, and only proposing collecting information relevant to your car’s emissions.

For now, anyway.

But what do you suppose will happen if the government discovers that an overly high amount of pollution comes from cars whose owners let them idle too long, or drive too fast? Do you think CARB will resist the temptation to require auto companies to give up individual data so they can fine or otherwise cajole those drivers?

Your car will collect much more data than that, though. And if CARB is allowed to use this information, it will only be a matter of time before other agencies want to collect more damning data about our driving habits.

Of course, this will all come under the guise of being critical for things that nobody would dare oppose – like “safety” or “protecting children.” Eventually, the police will insist that they could solve tragic drive-by shootings… if only they had the data of every car that went down a certain block at a certain time.

Seem unlikely? Consider what data the government already easily collects from you when you’re on the road…

E-Z Pass… E-Z Tracking

In many areas of the country, most drivers have an automated toll-collecting device on their windshields.

The most common one is E-Z Pass, used in 15 mostly eastern states and administered by Kapsch Trafficcom (KTCG.VI).

Of course, the system’s main job is taking your money when you pass through a toll. But did you know that it can also tell how fast you’re driving through a toll plaza? According to U.S. News and World Report, five states send warning letters to people who speed through toll plazas, and some even suspend the E-Z Pass privileges of repeat offenders. That’s all the highway agencies can do, though. They can’t send you a ticket.

For now.

How long will it take before someone with a few warnings, but no tickets, causes a crash – prompting the government to do more with the data it collects from everyone? Already, law enforcement agencies and even private parties have successfully subpoenaed E-Z Pass records to convict people of crimes and prove adultery in divorce cases.

Besides, your simple license plate is already snitching on you…

Smile for the Camera

We’re all familiar with how traffic cameras snap our license plates when we’re speeding or run through a red light. Their effectiveness is questionable, to say the least, but it generates millions of dollars for municipalities, often by ticketing innocent drivers.

But now, The Wall Street Journal reports that the federal government is using automated license plate readers and high-resolution cameras to build a detailed database on the comings and goings of millions of automobiles.

Naturally, the main goal of the program is money. The feds are using the program to confiscate cars and pocket cash, often without convicting the owner of any crime.

Americans are the most car-centric people in the world. Where we drive says as much about us as the websites we read, the programs we watch, or the people we socialize with.

As technology moves forward relentlessly, expect our cars to become more connected and smarter. And while this has compelling benefits, it will also present more opportunities to collect data on us and our driving habits.

As a result, we can also expect the government to take advantage of those opportunities… unless the privacy and oversight debate gains momentum and keeps meddling lawmakers at bay.

To living and investing in the future,

Greg Miller

Greg Miller

, Senior Analyst

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