Pleased To Meet Me

Though it was Minnesota’s Democratic Senator Al Franken who officially called him to task, Ford marketing boss Jim Farley set off a bipartisan anxiety attack when he offhandedly remarked on a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, “We know everyone who breaks the law. We know exactly when you do it, because we have a GPS sensor in your car, we know where you are, and we know how fast you’re driving.”

Farley realized that probably hadn’t sounded so good. So he quickly added, “We don’t supply that data to any other people.” But it was too late. What happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas.

Soon enough, Ford CEO Alan Mulally was walking it back, all the way to Washington, D.C., as Franken’s Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law called for formal clarification of the carmaker’s data-collection policies. Speaking to reporters, including the Detroit Free Press’s Alisa Priddle, at the Detroit auto show, Mulally declared, “What (Farley) said was not right. We do not track the vehicles. That’s absolutely wrong. And we’d only send data to get map data if they agree that that’s OK to do that, but we don’t do anything with the data, we don’t track it, and we would never do that.”

Maybe you can follow that, maybe you can’t. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the MBAs Ford—or any other carmaker—hires in 2014 are psychologically constructed not to grab the easy opportunities that modern technologies offer car companies that would spy on or, to put it more charitably, research their customers. Two basic reasons to collect data from a carmaker’s perspective, neither of which necessarily lead directly to a coming police state (but might), spring to mind.

The first is self-defense. So-called black boxes in cars—which can record your every movement and know where you are and how you’ve been driving—trouble me if the information collected is then used by the police. For one thing, it violates a speeder’s Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate him- or herself. However, as courts have already admitted black-box information, it’s really just a matter of time before your car starts phoning ahead to alert the local constabulary that you’re going 34 in a 25-mph zone. Like many radar guns, the service could be paid for by GEICO, which raises rates for speeding tickets, even ones it has helped arrange.

At the same time, I don’t think even a committed motorists’-rights advocate like myself can argue with a defendant in a costly liability suit who would like to introduce as evidence electronic proof that the claimant was driving erratically at 135 mph before a disputed incident that caused grievous bodily injury. If the goal of the law is ascertaining truth, so what if such information, accurately conveyed, was to be made available to the judge and jury? Like proof of cell-phone use, it might be very relevant. That such data might also be used to invalidate a warranty claim doesn’t trouble me. What’s fair is fair.

The second reason to collect data from moving cars is marketing. There are two parts to that, too.

Part one is when Ford collects data for its own use—to better sell you your next car, service appointment, and whatever accessories you can foolishly be conned into buying. It’s a nuisance. But, I mean, what else are they going to do?

Where it becomes chancy is a second possible use of your data: its transfer to third parties. Carmakers can claim some fairly precise and up-to-the-minute facts on the habits and whereabouts of tens of millions of people, not unlike today’s telecoms and social-media enterprises, but with some different and in some ways better and more useful informational twists from the point of view of the data’s end user. Quite apart from its interest to the National Security Agency and the law-enforcement community for purposes good and evil, consumer data has clear additional economic value to a carmaker as something to sell or barter for services, say with a telecom/media company.

You see, while you weren’t looking, cars became like phones and tablets, joining with them to morph into the ultimate data-collecting, supercomputing consumer spy gear. One’s growing sense that cars are getting dragged by consumers—I sometimes think pushed by their makers—deep into the telecommunications retail arena is borne out by the increasing presence of automotive dignitaries like Farley at CES. Regretfully, perhaps, carmakers are nonetheless prepared for you to think of your next car in a smartphone kind of a way. And so you probably shall.

Too much interconnectedness gets on my nerves. But mostly I think the whole business world is far too obsessed with collecting data. For almost a century, we had market research to ask people what they thought they wanted. Nowadays that costs too much money, and you don’t necessarily believe what someone tells a market researcher anyway. So you collect and sift through vast seas of raw data, more than you could ever possibly make sense of—a lot of which will be lost, misinterpreted, or stolen. It seems like only yesterday when all you had to do was make a good car. That’s never been easy and, near as I can tell, none of this spyware has done anything useful for making new cars that are more fun to drive.

But I digress. They’re not going to take your data. That is to say, they already did. And are. And will. I hate government minding my business almost as much as I hate big corporations minding my business. But I digress again.

Car companies don’t share our car payments. So why should we share with, nay, give them the value of our data? We should get paid. In the case of a carmaker swiping and sharing my details, perhaps I want free satellite radio in exchange. Complimentary oil changes or annual winter-tire mounting might even suffice. If it’s going to work, they’ve got to make this loss-of-freedom thing worth our while. It’s the American way.

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