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Highway robbery: How car companies steal your data
Getty Images/Patrick PIEL

Highway robbery: How car companies steal your data

All those onboard apps come at a steep price — which most us don't even realize we're paying

Automakers love to wow us with the latest infotainment systems — and it's not just to move more cars. The private data these apps gather provides a nice secondary income stream for car companies.

Dutch conglomerate Stellantis — which owns Ram, Dodge, Jeep, and Chrysler, among other brands — harvests so much data that it recently started a separate company to sell it.

Overuse has blunted the power of the term "Orwellian," but it certainly applies to the mobile surveillance states these companies have created in the vehicles they sell.

It is not alone. If your vehicle has any kind of connectivity, chances are you've inadvertently consented to having all sorts of data tracked: from your location and direction of travel to your speed. Not to mention the possibility of in-car audio recording.

You don’t sign these agreements at the dealership. No one will hand you paperwork and confirm you understand what you’re agreeing to before you click confirm. You buy your car, go to use one of the integrated services like the built-in apps, radio, maps, Wi-Fi, autonomous driving features, phone connectivity, etc., and a screen pops up requiring you to agree to the terms of service.

Most of us simply click "yes" rather than scroll through the copious legalese. Anyone who does make it through the fine print essentially gets this message: When you get in your car, you become a highly lucrative data source for the car company and its partners.

You can opt out! If you can figure out how. Some services automatically activate if you don't withdraw consent within a certain time period, often as short as a week. Again, this information is buried deep in the fine print.

What about Apple CarPlay? I have far more faith in Apple's information protection than I do in SiriusXM, which partnered with Guardian, a new company that no one really knows about. These companies hope people will assume it's part of their satellite radio service, but it has nothing to do with satellite radio. You can call SiriusXM and get the radio service without this extra security service, but most people don't know that.

Android Auto and Google-based devices are even worse for protecting your privacy. On a computer, consumers can safeguard their information by using browsers Brave or Duck Duck Go. On the road, they have no such option, at least for now.

Overuse has blunted the power of the term "Orwellian," but it certainly applies to the mobile surveillance states these companies have created in the vehicles they sell.

In its quarterly earnings call last month, Volvo asserted that data harvesting is set to become one of its main profit centers. The company will maintain a competitive advantage through its superior ability to monitor the activities of their drivers via more powerful computers, cameras, microphones, and other sensors.

Then there's GM, whose OnStar system has become quite adept at hoovering up anything and everything about its users.

GM's Global B architecture (standard in the C8 Corvette and most new Cadillacs) constantly uploads your info and enables GM to monitor and even disable your vehicle. In the event of a crash, GM will receive data on your speed, braking, reaction time, as well as the location of other vehicles. While this is ostensibly to protect GM from lawsuits, this information can also be accessed by insurance companies and the government.

GM even performs AI analysis on thousands of traffic violation data sets to show how self-driving (Super Cruise) and automatic driver assist software features make cars safer.

No, you can't turn this off. It's for your own good.

You can, however, see what exactly your car knows about you. U.S.-based Privacy4Cars offers a free Vehicle Privacy Report based on your car's VIN.

One day soon we may see a person arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to prison entirely based on evidence from vehicle monitoring. Until that happens, most consumers will settle for giving up their privacy in exchange for a little convenience.

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Lauren Fix

Lauren Fix

Lauren Fix is a nationally recognized automotive expert, journalist, and author. She is a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers as well as an ASE-certified technician. Lauren has been fixing, restoring, and racing cars since the age of ten.