Automakers pledge to protect driver privacy

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington – — The two major U.S. auto trade associations told the Federal Trade Commission they will pledge to protect driver privacy amid a rise in vehicle technology and increasingly connected vehicles.

In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and others — and the Association of Global Automakers, representing Toyota, Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and others — said they were backing a set of principles guaranteeing the privacy of drivers.

Automakers said in the 19-page submission that they are committing to protect driver location and driver behavior data. It comes as concern grows that vehicle services collect significant data at times that could be tapped by marketers, government officials or others. The car companies are committing to be transparent with drivers about what data is collected and requiring that drivers opt in to programs that include data collection. They also pledged to minimize data, to hide the identity of drivers and to only collect data for "legitimate business purposes" and only with driver consent.

They pledge to follow the principles for all vehicles and programs no later than the 2017 model year. They also pledge to work with vendors to ensure they respect privacy.

"New automotive technologies and services are providing our customers with tremendous benefits," said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "For example, alerts about traffic conditions help reduce congestion, while concierge services are able to unlock car doors and route drivers around the path of a storm. Providing such features in a transparent way is important to both customers and automakers."

The principles build on the Fair Information Practice Principles, Federal Trade Commission guidance and the White House Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. "

Some in Congress have raised concerns about the driver privacy issue. In January, a government report found that major automakers collected information about where drivers have been — obtained from onboard navigation systems — for varying lengths of time. Owners of those cars can't demand that the information be destroyed. And, says the U.S. senator requesting the investigation, that raises questions about driver privacy.

The Government Accountability Office found major automakers have differing policies about how much data they collect and how long they keep it. Some insurance companies offer lower rates if drivers allow them to monitor their behavior. But automakers note that can only occur with owner consent.

Automakers collect location data in order to provide drivers with real-time traffic information, to help find the nearest gas station or restaurant, and to 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 GAO 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. In addition, location data can be used to infer other sensitive information about individuals such as their religious affiliation or political activities."

In addition to navigation systems, there are other ways vehicles can collect information: Event data recorders, known as "black boxes," store data in the event of crashes. Transponders like EZ-PASS transmit location and are used in some instances by law enforcement and for research. Some owners also agree to monitoring of driving habits to qualify for lower insurance rates or to keep tabs on teen drivers.