Cars, Privacy, Technology

Your Car Knows What You Did Last Summer

When I come across internet slideshows with titles like “8 Coolest Things Ever” or “Top 10 Reasons Why Lady Gaga Is a Man” or “Yale Law School’s 7 Most Disgraceful Graduates,” I think, “Ugh, not more link bait. I already spend half my time on this trash.” But like everyone else, I click it anyway, feel unsurprisingly disappointed, and then wish for the last 45 seconds of my life back.

When someone sent me “6 Ways Your Car Can Spy on You,” I had little-to-no expectations. But it turned out the little slideshow actually had a few tasty morsels of knowledge.

Keep reading to learn how simply paying bridge tolls keeps you on the grid, and how police can assign liability based on an unexpected similarity between airplanes and your Honda Civic….

Last year, we wrote about the ways in which Facebook can affect divorces. Turns out your handy dandy E-Z Pass can have a similar effect. From CNN Money:

Toll data has been used in criminal cases and divorce proceedings…

In New Jersey, at least, E-ZPass toll records can be accessed only with a court order and only in criminal cases, according to New Jersey Turnpike Authority spokesman Tom Feeney. The records are, however, kept indefinitely.

The rules may differ wherever you are. New Jersey’s privacy rules apply only to those who have an E-ZPass account in that state. If you have a toll tag from someplace else, your privacy protection may vary.

I can imagine the tense domestic discussion that leads to nasty divorces: “Honey, I know you said you were going to work in San Francisco all weekend, but the FasTrak statement says you only took the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, not the Bay Bridge. What the hell were you doing in the wine country without me?” (For all you East coasters out there, the San Rafael bridge goes up towards romantic weekend getaway spots like Marin and Sonoma.)

In a different scenario, if someone gets into a bad accident driving home late from the office — or the strip club — police have more than just skid marks and traffic cameras to use as evidence. Apparently cars also contain black boxes, just like airplanes:

Most cars today contain a so-called “Black Box” similar to those found on airplanes. These boxes continuously record the car’s speed as well as what the driver is doing with the steering wheel and brakes.

The box has a short memory, though. The data is continuously overwritten every few seconds. In the event of a crash, the recording stops, preserving the few seconds of data just before and after the impact.

If you were speeding just before the impact — or if you didn’t brake or swerve to avoid the crash — the recorder knows and its contents could haunt you in a court of law. (Or in the media, as some Toyota accusers found out.)

Getting permission to download data from a car requires a court order… but it’s usually not hard to get one.

If you’re like, the most gullible person in the world, now you can voluntarily send a real-time record of your driving style to your insurance company!

[S]ome insurance companies offer discounts to drivers willing to let Big Brother ride shotgun.

Again, this is a trade-off the driver makes willingly. In the case of Progressive’s Snapshot, a small device plugs into the car’s diagnostics port. It doesn’t record where you drive or even how fast. All it records is how many miles you drive, what time of day and how hard you step on the brakes. Frequent hard braking shows aggressive tendencies and that, Progressive’s analysts have found, is an excellent predictor of crash risk.

Drivers can agree to have their braking habits monitored for six months and, in return, they can qualify for a discount of up to 30%, Progressive says.

I would try to make an argument that there’s some sort of privacy violation here, but if you’re naive enough to to provide your car insurance company with real-time information about your driving habits, you probably deserve whatever you get. If someone exists who is a good enough driver that he actually gets the reduction, that person is a unicorn and I want to meet him (and maybe steal his kidneys).

When insurance companies start sneaking that technology into contracts and cars without letting customers know, then I’ll start getting worried.

The last read-worthy item on the list, not for its legal value, but for the level of sheer gall, explains the latest in helicopter parent technology:

Plugged into the car’s vehicle diagnostics port, devices like the Tiwi, which also contains a GPS tracking device, allow parents to set limits on how much over the speed limit — if any — kids are allowed to drive and even define certain parts of town kids have to stay within.

Parents can even be notified in real time when the limits are broken and a voice inside the car can remind the driver, too.

I just went to the Tiwi website, and I feel terrible for any teenager who has to drive around with that mockery-magnet on her windshield. The big clunky box sits on the windshield and starts ordering you around if you go too fast. Although I suppose in a world where parents sue middle-schoolers for teasing, wiring your kids up to a homing beacon isn’t such a big deal.

6 Ways Your Car Can Spy on You [CNN Money]

Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at You can read more of his work at

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