Could self-driving cars impact our privacy?

by William Mattar | July 11th, 2017

“In [a] near-future filled with self-driving cars, the price of convenience is surveillance.”

That is the argument advanced in a recent Atlantic article, “How Self-Driving Cars Will Threaten privacy.”

The article begins with a morning commute “sometime in the indeterminate future” where the humanoid voice of a hypothetical self-driving car makes seemingly innocuous suggestions as to the commuter’s morning coffee spot and dry cleaner.

After the upbeat narrative, the author pronounces that “[t]his the age of self-driving cars, an era when much of the minutiae of daily life is relegated to a machine.”

Your commute was pleasant, relaxing, and efficient. Along with promising unprecedented safety on public roadways, driverless cars could make our lives a lot easier—freeing up people’s time and attention to focus on other matters while they’re moving from one place to the next.

But suddenly, the article takes a cynical turn, informing the reader that “there’s a darker side to all this . . .”

There we were. The car picked us up. We wanted coffee. It suggested Peet’s. But if we’d stopped to look at the map on the screen when this happened, we might have noticed that Peet’s wasn’t actually the most efficient place to stop, nor was it on your list of preferred coffee shops, which the car’s machine-learning algorithm developed over time. Peet’s was, instead, a sponsored destination—not unlike a sponsored search result on Google. The car went ever-so-slightly out of the way to take you there.

Same goes for your dry cleaner’s. The only reason you dropped off your clothes there in the first place was that the car suggested it. And the car suggested it because Suds paid Google, the maker of the self-driving car, to be a featured dry-cleaning destination in your area.

As for the lunch special, that really is a favorite restaurant of yours—but the car has never driven you there before. It knows your preferences because the vehicle has combed through your emails, identified key words, and assessed related messages for emotional tone. Similarly, the car knew which sale items to show you from the grocery store because it reviewed your past shopping activity. Plus, there was that one time you told a friend who was sitting in the car with you how much you liked a particular beer you’d tried the night before. The car heard your conversation, picked up on brand keywords, and knew to suggest the same beer for your shopping list when it went on sale.

The crux of the article is that self-driving cars will both give and take—offering tremendous opportunity, with a necessary cost.  Because “data collection is a natural extension of a driverless car’s functionality,” self-driving car users will constantly be feeding their own personal data into the algorithm, “which means cars will collect reams of information about the people they drive around.”

The author proposes an approach to protecting driver data: anonymizing it all.

One example:  “making sure specific travel itineraries or details from a given trip aren’t tied to an individual.”

Recognizing the tremendous value of individual data for marketing purposes, however, the author is optimistic—but realistic—about the prospect of protecting privacy in the age of big data.