Interconnected cars add unique privacy concerns


Imagine you’re driving down a street in your town, and as you pass through an intersection you see a flash out of the corner of your eye just before a car running the red light broadsides you. Now, imagine that your vehicle was in communication with the other vehicle, and your car automatically stopped or took evasive action to avoid the accident. That would be pretty amazing—and that is just the sort of car-to-car communication technology the Department of Transportation wants to make mandatory for all passenger vehicles. However, the technology may also invade your privacy and put you at risk.

It’s really just a next step in the evolution of safety. We require safety belts because they keep you secured in your seat during an accident. We require airbags because the airbag can deploy in the blink of an eye—much faster than you can possibly react in a crash. If we have the technology for vehicles to proactively communicate with one another and simply avoid the accidents in the first place, then of course we should use it, right?

The US Department of Transportation estimates that V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) communication could prevent four out of five accidents. According to data from the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), there were 33,561 fatalities in 2012 from motor vehicle crashes. Granted, some of those were drivers, and some were passengers, so it doesn’t translate directly, but just using rough math reducing the total crashes by 80 percent could potentially save more than 25,000 lives.

The car-to-car communication transponder technology that the DoT has in mind would communicate a car’s location, direction, and speed to nearby vehicles. The system could then alert the driver of potential danger and/or automatically slow or stop the car to avoid a crash. There are a couple concerns to address with such a system, though.

First, there is the question of privacy, and whether or not that data could be used against you. If your car is sending detailed speed data to nearby vehicles, and you pass a police car, would that police officer be able to pull you over and write you a ticket simply based on the fact that your own car announced that you were speeding?

The second concern is that the system could be hacked, and somebody could override your vehicle and force it to stop when there is no impending accident. Security researchers demonstrated a hack at the 2013 Black Hat conference last summer that enabled them to remotely control computer-operated functions in modern vehicles. The hackers were able to sound the horn, slam on the brakes, spoof the GPS coordinates, or even move the steering wheel simply by issuing commands from a computer.

This second concern exists with or without the proposed V2V transponder technology. It is already possible as a function of just how dependent our vehicles are on computer systems. However, tying those computer-aided functions into a system that communicated over WiFi may just make it that much easier for would-be hackers to remotely access and control your vehicle’s behavior.

I’m all for cutting down on accidents by 80 percent, and possibly saving tens of thousands of lives. It just needs to be done in a way that addresses these privacy and security concerns.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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