How Much Does Your Car Know About You?

September 25, 2017 - Updated May 30, 2018

Infotainment systems, like this one in a BMW i3, can use and store your private information. ( Ways You Can Protect the Data Your Car Collects About You

Your next new car may have more in common with your personal computer than with your first car.

Cars are smarter and more connected than ever before.

The newest cars can collect information about you including your home address, your contact list, your eye movements, the amount of time your hands are on your steering wheel, how fast you’re driving, the weight of the people in the front seats, where and how often you drive places, texts, phone calls, and even what you search for on the internet.

If you worry about the security of your private information in your personal computer, you should worry about the security of your personal information in your car.

What data does your car collect? Why? And who owns it?

Event data recorders, telematic systems, built-in cellular connections, and other networked connections (like Bluetooth) can turn your car into a veritable gold mine of personal information and driving data.

Electronic Data Recorders

EDRs are devices (installed in 96% of new passenger cars and light-duty vehicles in 2013) that record specific technical vehicle and occupant information for a brief period of time before, during and after a crash.

In ordinary circumstances, this data is used only by auto-safety analysts and accident investigators for evaluative purposes in crash/accident situations. Recorded information includes the vehicle speed, time of brake activation before a crash, state of engine throttle, airbag deployment timing, and whether or not the vehicle’s occupants seatbelts were buckled.

Investigators and analysts can use this data to better understand the dynamics of a crash and the performance of safety systems.

EDRs do NOT collect any personal identifying information, record audio or visual data, or run continuously.

Importantly, in 2015, Congress passed a law stating that all EDR data belongs to the vehicle's owner, not the auto company.

Telematics, navigation, &  other connected “smart” car systems

On-board systems (like GM’s OnStar, Ford’s SYNC, and Mercedes-Benz’s Mbrace), radar sensors, diagnostic systems, cameras, microphones, and connected devices (like smartphones and tablets) also collect a variety of data and information about vehicles and occupants.

According to Consumer Reports, 32 of 44 auto brands “offer some form of wireless data connection in their 2018 model-year cars.”

Depending on the functionality of the technology or device, information that the car may be recording can include:

  • The driver’s eye movements

  • Whether the driver’s hands are on the steering wheel

  • The weight of front seat occupants

  • Call logs

  • Phone calls

  • Text messages

  • Playlists

  • Addresses

  • Location history

  • Search queries on the internet

  • Audio and video recordings

  • Biometric information

Much of this information, unlike that collected by the car’s event data recorders, IS personal identifying information. Yet, as of 2018, no legal requirements exist for the use and ownership of most car data.

Should you worry about the privacy of the data in your car?

Most of the information collected by the various technologies, devices, and interfaces in your car serves a purpose:

  • Contacts, for instance, maybe synced from your phone to enable hands-free phone calls.

  • Backup cameras and sensors record information to improve rearview monitoring and other safety features.

  • Addresses may be synced or uploaded to better guide navigation systems.

With the increasing amount and variety of information being collected and used by vehicles, manufacturers and dealers are working to ensure that consumers fully understand new features and understand the types of personal data involved.

The Automotive Privacy Principles, for instance, went into effect beginning with model year 2017 vehicles and was developed by the automotive industry to help ensure the privacy and security of consumer information.

As vehicles become more connected, understanding how the information in the vehicles is collected, shared, and used will become increasingly important to protecting consumer privacy and safety.

The information in your car is at risk

Again, like the information on your phone or your home computer, the information in your car is vulnerable to hacking.

Both the vehicle’s onboard diagnostics system (OBD-II) port and its network (i.e Bluetooth connectivity) are gateways to the car’s data systems and are vulnerable to infiltration by hackers.

If hackers can breach the network of a company like Equifax, stealing the private information of 143 million Americans, they can certainly scrape personal data from your vehicle.

Why hackers would want the information in your car is a valid question; but if you can take steps to protect your car from being hacked now, why would you wait until someone who has the means to steal your private information also has a reason to?

You should take steps to protect the data in your car as you would the data on your personal computer.How can you prevent your car from being hacked?

Keep in touch with the manufacturer.

Make sure you find out about the most updated firmware, recalls, and other information by providing your vehicle’s manufacturer with your contact information.

Know what your car’s OBD-II port looks like.

If the OBD-II ever looks like it’s been tampered with, or has something plugged into it, call your dealership.

Don’t plug any unknown or unscreened devices into your car’s USB or OBD-II diagnostic port. 

Remember, both your car’s USB and OBD-II diagnostic port link to your car’s internal computers and controls. You don’t want to unintentionally introduce malware to your vehicle’s computer system.

Buy an OBD-II lock.

An OBD-II lock is a mechanical dongle that plugs into your vehicle’s diagnostic port and locks in place with a key.

Block the signal from your key fob.

If your car has a key fob your vehicle is always “listening” for it - waiting to receive the unique code that will tell it to unlock (or lock) the doors or start the engine. If your car has an “always-on” key fob, your car will automatically unlock as you approach it. Both types of fobs are convenient for you - and a gift for those who want your car.

To prevent thieves from using electronic signal-amplifier devices on your fob to access your vehicle, you can block the key fob’s signal:

  • Store the fob in several layers of metal:
    • a metal box
    • The refrigerator or freezer (check with the fob’s manufacturer to make sure that such an action won’t damage it)
    • Wrap the fob in a few pieces of aluminum foil
    • Stick the key fob in your microwave (please don’t turn it on)
  • Use a signal-blocking pouch

Turn off Bluetooth if you’re not using it.

Just that. Bluetooth connectivity exposes your vehicle to a plethora of possible malware attacks.

If you’re not using the Bluetooth connectivity between your car and your cell phone, turn off the feature in the car and on your device.

Keep your information, your car, and yourself safe

Knowledge is power. The best way to protect your private information, your car, and yourself is to be proactive:

  • Pay attention to the information provided to you by the dealer and manufacturer regarding your vehicle’s features.
  • Remember that your car, if it’s a newer one, is most likely connected or networked and you need to take similar precautions to those you use to protect your information on your home computer.  
  • Understand the privacy policies from not only the vehicle manufacturer but also from third parties that may have access to information through access to your OBD-II port or any apps.

Useful Resources:    

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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