Car Companies Are Collecting Drivers' Location Data

Privacy advocates fear how such information may be used, new report says

Car companies are collecting and keeping data on the whereabouts of drivers.

Automakers are obtaining data through real-time navigation functions and other on-board location services and storing it for undetermined lengths of time. They need to provide motorists with more information on how and why they're collecting and sharing data, according to a government report released Monday.

A review of privacy practices in the auto industry conducted by the Government Accountability Office found while automakers had taken some steps to protect consumer privacy, they had also made it difficult for consumers to understand the risks and vulnerabilities.

Privacy advocates fear that location data could be used to track motorists, steal their identities, stalk them or monitor them without their knowledge, the review said. Information about motorists' political activity or religious affiliation could also be gleaned.

The GAO examined the practices of ten automakers and navigation companies over 10-month span. Among its conclusions:

- While all the companies disclosed that they collect data, their disclosures are overly broad. Five of the companies did not describe the purpose for sharing location data.

- While all the companies offered consumers some controls over location data collection, they did not allow consumers to request that their data be deleted, which is a recommended industry practice.

- There is "wide variation" in how long the sampled companies retained vehicle-specific or identifiable location data. Risks have increased that location data may be used in ways the "consumers did not intend."

Senator had sought GAO inquiry

U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), who chairs a congressional subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, had requested the review. He said Monday its results are encouraging him to reintroduce legislation on location privacy later this year.

"Modern technology now allows drivers to get turn-by-turn directions in a matter of seconds, but our privacy laws haven't kept pace with these enormous advances," Franken said. "This report shows that Minnesotans and people across the country need much more information about how the data are being collected, what they're being used for and how they're being shared with third parties."

Privacy concerns have touched every facet of American life in the digital age. In recent month, it has been disclosed that the National Security Agency has been collecting phone records of millions of Americans, and big companies like Target have lost sensitive customer data in cyber attacks.

Location-based services like real-time traffic apps, gas station finders and on-board restaurant reviews have gained in popularity in recent years on telematics features such as General Motors' OnStar, but the data collection can extend beyond systems installed in the car to information that comes from a cell phone synced to the car.

Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Nissan, Honda and Toyota, which together account for about three-quarters of U.S. sales, were the six auto manufacturers who participated in the review. Other companies involved in the review were Garmin, TomTom, Google Maps and Telenav.

Automakers see advertising possibilities

All the companies told the GAO they do not share data that could identify customers with marketers or data brokers. One of the companies told the GAO it does share aggregated data that does not contain identifying marks with such marketers.

While the companies did say they don't share that information now, they left the option open to do so in the future, saying their current policies gave them the flexibility to do so.

It's a giant opening. As these location-based services become more sophisticated, mobile advertisers are trying to find ways to entice drivers near their stores to shop with coupons and deals sent through such on-board systems.

At a recent automotive conference, Patricia Watkins, global director of client management for Sprint Velocity, said, "There's a lot of data coming off a car that an OEM can use to enhance the quality of their initiatives and leverage that rich set of information.

"With mobile advertising, everyone's all, 'I don't know, ads in the car?' Allowing your customer to elect that enhances customer loyalty and they become dependent on this. That's the holy grail for what people are trying to achieve in this space."

Beyond data from these in-car telematics units, cars are also beginning to create data from mandatory black boxes installed under the hood.

Last year, the federal government enacted a law that mandates all new cars carry an event data recorder, similar to the ones used in airplanes. Many new vehicles already have these recorders, which can track speed, braking, fuel consumption and other operations.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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