Mulally at the North American International Auto Show. He has vehemently denied that Ford tracks drivers' whereabouts. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally says federal regulators should develop laws protecting the rights of motorists whose cars and trucks record their movements, and other information.
“It’s really important that we have boundaries and guidelines,” Mulally said from the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show. “I think this area of privacy — and it always has been — (is) the domain of the government.”
Yet even as Mulally called for regulation of driver data, Ford and other automakers are pursing new ways to use data for commercial purposes. The Dearborn-based automaker recently received a patent for targeted in-car advertisements, which collect data including GPS coordinates and other variables to decide which ad to broadcast and when it will be broadcast.
“Everybody’s talking about this; this isn’t unique to Ford,” said Thilo Koslowski, a vice president at technology research firm Gartner Inc., who added that targeted ads are already prevalent on smartphones and mobile devices. And some targeted ads will be offered through cars via apps like Pandora. “This type of accessing and tracking of consumer information doesn’t stop anywhere.”
In its published patent application, Ford said driver data would be scrubbed of personal information. Only generic data goes to a remote system, the automaker said, and that system chooses an advertisement and decides where it plays. For example, an advertiser could alert a driver who is close to a grocery or a restaurant.
Ford did not immediately respond to a request from The Detroit News Wednesday for comment on the patent.
Privacy is in the news and on the minds of Americans and advocacy groups, brought to the forefront by revelations of National Security Agency surveillance efforts, and Edward Snowden’s massive leak of government documents.
The auto industry was further pulled into the debate last week when Ford marketing chief Jim Farley was quoted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as saying “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.”
But Koslowski said it’s still the “wild west when it comes to privacy in the auto industry.
“It’s not a completely open space, but it’s pretty wild. But automakers have an opportunity to be proactive in terms of crafting some of these rules.”
Ford executives this week vehemently denied tracking drivers’ whereabouts.
“We do not track the vehicles,” Mulally said. “That’s absolutely wrong. And we would never track the vehicles.”
Asked his take on the issue, Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said he doesn’t think Chrysler has “similar issues.”
“We have been very, very wary of ... having direct access in a personal way to the vehicle itself,” Marchionne said while at the auto show.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has been an outspoken advocate of tougher privacy laws, and said last week following the Government Accountability Office report that there’s little transparency about how data is used or tracked. In fact, after Farley’s comments, Franken this week sent a letter to Mulally inquiring how Ford collects data.
“People across the country need much more information about how the data are being collected, what they’re being used for, and how they’re being shared with third parties,” said Franken last week. He said he plans to introduce legislation on the issue.
Insurance provider AAA last week urged automakers to protect consumer data used in GPS systems.
“The data that today can be routinely collected by cars includes some of the most sensitive data that can be collected about a person, including information about their precise location and driving habits,” said Bob Darbelnet, president and CEO of AAA.
The GAO said the automakers have differing policies about how much data they collect and how long they keep it.
Automakers collect location data in order to provide drivers with real-time traffic information, help find the nearest gas station or restaurant, and provide emergency roadside assistance and stolen vehicle tracking. But, the report found, “If companies retained data, they did not allow consumers to request that their data be deleted, which is a recommended practice.”
The report reviewed practices of Detroit’s three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. It also looked at navigation system makers Garmin and TomTom and app developers Google Maps and Telenav. The report, which didn’t identify policies of individual companies, found automakers had taken steps to protect privacy and were not selling personal data of owners.
The agency said privacy advocates worry location data could be used to market to individuals and to “track where consumers are, which can in turn be used to steal their identity, stalk them or monitor them without their knowledge.”
David Shepardson and Bryce G. Hoffman contributed.