I was up in Sacramento today to call on the Department of Motor Vehicles to ensure that the regulations that they are developing to govern the use of autonomous vehicles – popularly known as driverless cars – will protect the operators’ privacy.
The company that will be most directly affected by the new autonomous vehicle regulations is Google, which is pioneering development of the robot-driven cars. The Internet giant was the driving force behind SB 1298, which charged the DMV with the task of developing the regulations and also rebuffed attempts to require privacy protections in the law.
However, it is not too late to implement privacy safeguards in this rulemaking and Consumer Watchdog called on the DMV to do so. Failure to act will mean substantial privacy risks from the manufacturers’ driverless car technology if there are not protections from what Google is best known for: the collection and use of voluminous personal information about us and our movements.
The DMV regulations must give the user control over what data is gathered and how the information will be used. Merely stating what data is gathered with no explanation of its use is woefully inadequate. The DMV’s autonomous vehicle regulations must provide that driverless cars gather only the data necessary to operate the vehicle and retain that data only as long as necessary for the vehicle’s operation. The regulations should provide that the data must not be used for any additional purpose such as marketing or advertising without the consumer’s explicit opt-in consent.
Without appropriate regulations, autonomous vehicles will be able to gather unprecedented amounts of information about the use of those vehicles. How will it be used? Just as we are now tracked around the Internet, will Google and other purveyors of driverless car technology now be looking over our shoulders on every highway and byway? Will the data be provided to insurance companies for underwriting purposes or to third parties that develop some kind of a driving score related to where and when individuals travel? Will it be used to serve in-car advertisements or advertisements through other venues in the Google suite of products? Will it be used to track our movements and those of surrounding cars and mobile devices so that Google’s advertisers can better locate us?
Google is the aforementioned leader in driverless car research and is attempting to steer regulatory efforts in various states, especially California. That’s why our concerns are so focused on the company. So I ask: Why won’t Google endorse simple privacy safeguards for its self-driving cars? I think there are two reasons.
First, Google’s entire business model is based on building digital dossiers about our personal behavior and using them to sell the most personal advertising to us. You’re not Google’s customer; you are its product – the one it sells to corporations willing to pay any price to reach you. Will the driverless technology be just about getting us from point to point or more about tracking how we got there and what we did along the way?
Second, computer engineers, who believe that more data is always better, are in charge at Google. They may not know what they would use data for today, but they think they may someday find a use for it and don’t want any restrictions on them now.
Google is first and foremost an advertising company; 98 percent of its $38 billion in revenue comes from advertising, and the more personalized the marketing the better. Indeed, Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has said, “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”