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What Does Your Car Know About You?

Cars today have many microprocessors and sensors. They gather a lot of data to power advanced features, boost safety, and make driving smarter.

Cars are smarter than ever before. Cars have had computers since 1968, but today, there are thousands of chips, sensors, and cameras in every car that collect and interpret data. Is your car actually compromising your privacy?

Modern cars are equipped with numerous microprocessors and sensors that collect and interpret vast amounts of data, contributing to advanced features, safety enhancements, and a more intelligent overall driving experience. Connected cars collect even more data because they are providing you with Wi-Fi access while you’re on the road. 

This reflects the ongoing trend of automotive innovation and the integration of sophisticated technologies into vehicles.

However, it also brings up a lot of questions for people who are interested in protecting their data and preserving their privacy. 

  • What data is my car collecting about me?
  • How much of my personal information does my car know about me?
  • Can I wipe my personal data from my car? 
  • Who is using the information that my car collects?

These are great questions! The answers are not always straightforward, but they’re worth digging into. In a data-driven world, it’s important to consider all of the ways that we are constantly sharing data about ourselves with others and impacting our privacy – including via our cars! 

What kind of data do cars collect? 

First, let’s take a look at the general categories of data cars collect in the first place. Just because a car collects information does not mean that all of the information they collect is problematic. However, it’s easy to see some potential vulnerabilities when you review just how much information our cars have access to. 

  • Precise location data through GPS and navigation systems
  • Driving behavior data such as acceleration, braking, speed, and turning patterns collected through sensors
  • In-car interactions like music listening history, radio presets, voice commands, and infotainment system usage
  • Biometric data such as weight, body position from sensors in seats and seatbelts, driver attention, and fatigue monitoring
  • Information synced from paired mobile phones including contacts, call and message logs, and unique phone identifiers
  • Vehicle operational data like battery usage, gear status, tire pressure, and other diagnostics
  • External cameras and sensors that collect images, video, and telemetry data about car surroundings
  • Facial recognition systems in some models that scan faces to identify drivers
  • Data inferences and profiles created about drivers based on all the collected data
  • Information from external sources like car dealers, data brokers, and government agencies
No car manufacturer was found to be ethically responsible for customer data.

Do all car manufacturers collect this much data? 

Not all car manufacturers are the same. Some collect far more data than others, and some are more transparent about what they collect than others. 

The Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit organization that creates open-source browsers and promotes free access to the Internet, conducted in-depth research into what data each major manufacturer does and does not collect. 

Mozilla’s annual Privacy Not Included tool analyzes 25 car companies, and the results are troubling. In 2023, all 25 examined brands were given failing grades for consumer privacy protection. They found that it was difficult for manufacturers to answer questions about the data they collect, but without consumer protections, many of them can do whatever they want with our information.

In fact, Mozilla expresses concern about some troubling statistics

  • 84% of manufacturers say they can share their customers’ data with businesses and data brokers 
  • 76% say they can sell your personal data
  • 56% will hand over your data to governments or law enforcement when requested, rather than requiring a court order 
  • 92% of manufacturers don’t give their customers any control over how their data is collected or used 

The worst offenders are Nissan, Tesla, and Hyundai, but all other manufacturers were considered problematic, including: Renault, Dacia, BMW, Subaru, Fiat, Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge, Volkswagen, Toyota, Ford, Lincoln, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Acura, Kia, Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac. 

Again, there was not a single car manufacturer that was found to be ethically responsible for their customers’ data. 

40 of the things Mozilla found that car manufacturers can collect

Mozilla produced a list of over 150 pieces of information that our cars can collect about us and the world around us. Some of these things may be obvious, but others are pretty surprising!

Here are 40 of the items on their list:

  1. Date of birth
  2. Your phone’s location
  3. Financial account numbers
  4. Your credit card number, CVV code, and expiration date
  5. Records of what you have purchased 
  6. Your driver’s license number  
  7. Social Security Number
  8. Passport number
  9. Signature
  10. Sex life or sexual orientation information (as laid out in Kia’s Terms of Service!
  11. Disability status
  12. Genetic information
  13. Facial templates 
  14. Fingerprints
  15. Voiceprints
  16. Sleep data
  17. Health data
  18. Exercise data
  19. Religion
  20. Political beliefs 
  21. Marital status
  22. Education level
  23. Your current employment status and details 
  24. Nationality/citizenship status
  25. Immigration status
  26. Veteran or military status 
  27. Your contacts
  28. Your calendar
  29. Location history
  30. Driving schedule 
  31. Audio recordings of people in the car 
  32. Your accelerator use
  33. The speed of your driving
  34. How often you use your seat belt
  35. Where you travel regularly
  36. Battery charging history
  37. How you use your brakes 
  38. Purchase history 
  39. Sensor data
  40. Your search history
What to do once you know how much data car manufacturers are collecting

Where do our cars get all this information?

How is it possible that our cars can collect all of this information? How would our car know whether or not we have served in the military or what our political and religious beliefs are? What could provide them with access to all of this information?  

Well, there are a few ways that cars access our data and impact our privacy. 

First, cars are designed to collect information about your habits and behaviors within the vehicle. Modern cars are filled with microphones, sensors, cameras, and computer chips that record everything we do. 

Second, we connect our phones to our cars, and we use the apps and services on our digital dashboards. Whenever we use a satellite radio or GPS, we’re sharing information with our cars. Similarly, when we download the car’s app, your phone shares information with the manufacturer. Using Wi-Fi in a connected car can create data vulnerabilities, too. 

Third, and finally, car manufacturers can gather information about their customers the same way that any company collects information about customers. They can gather information from dealerships, permissions you provide when on their website, social media interactions, and more. 

What to do once you know how much data car manufacturers are collecting

Our vehicles have become sophisticated data collection devices, gathering immense amounts of information about our habits, behaviors, preferences, and private lives.

While some of this data collection leads to enhanced safety and convenience features, the lack of transparency and control is extremely troubling for privacy. Consumers deserve to understand exactly what information their cars are gathering about them and how it is being used. 

Consumers need to demand common-sense limitations on the data car manufacturers can collect without consent. At the very minimum, drivers should have access to their data and the ability to delete it when they sell or dispose of a vehicle. The onus is on lawmakers and the automotive industry itself to develop and implement much stronger privacy protections around connected vehicles. 

Unfortunately, until meaningful action is taken, drivers should educate themselves on the data practices of any vehicle they purchase and limit sharing as much as possible. The future of driving cannot come at the expense of personal privacy.

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