Google’s driveless car and privacy

June 3, 2014 |

Google and privacy.  Not a neat or natural fit, whether it is google’s modus operandi or its devices, most recently the google glass.  Now Google’s driverless car has tech heads excited and privacy practitioners worried. Again.  The Guardian in Google’s driverless cars are a boon for safety and climate, but not for privacy highlights the privacy issue, being the unremitting collection of data about individuals using the car.  It is no longer a means of transportation but a data collecting module whose data is invaluable for all manner of secondary purposes, such as insurers, nosey employers, embittered or just curious spouses not to mention advertisers and retailers.  A mass of data identifying where one travels, how fast one travels, where one stops and for how long can be used for the purpose of predictive analytics.  That can lead to inferences about someone’s behaviours and likely exposure to risk. Predictive analytics is just that, a form of prediction.  The accuracy can be questionable.  More importantly the ability to travel anonymously is compromised if the collection of data is so comprehensive that one’s movement can be monitored in the name of functionality, safety and efficiency.  If the technology is to be adopted and used extensively there needs to be proper controls on the collection, use and disclosure of the data it collects.  The Privacy Commissioner highlighted  concerns about Google Glass in June last year (see here) which prompted an, expected, vague and not particularly helpful response (see here).  Google glasses still attract hagiographic coverage, such as with Google Glass could become the future in surgery (though even here the privacy intrusive potential is acknowledged).  The Privacy Commissioner has also raised concerns about Google street view WI FI collection (see here).

The speed and scope of Google’s ambitious, and voracious, development of technology highlights how poorly the law is keeping up to provide consumer and privacy protections for individuals who get the benefit of those services and products. The common law is woefully out of step with the potentially privacy intrusive behaviour that can impact on individuals.  Commonwealth and State legislature has for at least the last decade (but in fact a lot longer)  ignored Law Reform Commission reports that have called for a statutory right of privacy.  There are significant gaps in the scope and operation of the Privacy Act.  The effectiveness of the regulation under the Act is primarily reliant on an active and properly funded Privacy Commissioner.

The article provides:

 Last week, at a technology conference in California, Google unveiled the latest version of its driverless vehicle, a two-seater that has no steering wheel or other driver controls.

As others have noted, the idea of the driverless car – assuming it can be done right – is enormously attractive, and not just for the reasons in Google’s breathless introduction. A fleet of semi-autonomous electric of hydrogen-powered vehicles could be a boon in all kinds of ways, including the potential for making our roads and highways much safer, for dealing with growing demand and the environment, for freeing up current drivers’ time to do more productive things than steer a car.

But as we move toward this inviting future, we’re losing something as well. The American romance with cars – however wasteful and selfish in some respects – has always been tied to our sense of individual freedom. In the world that Google, government and others are creating for us, that’s becoming history, too.

I learned to drive at about age 12, which was when my feet could reach the clutch, brake and gas pedals in the decrepit Jeep we used mainly for plowing our long driveway and carting stuff around our property. It was huge fun to drive, even if the ride was spine-jarring.

The first car I owned – some six years later – was a very used 1964 Volkswagen Beetle that my father helped me buy (to my mother’s distinct displeasure). For the first time, I didn’t need permission to go when or where I pleased. I reveled in what felt like genuine freedom, even though my serious road trips came later.

I’ve driven coast-to-coast several times, seeing the American continent up close – including a stretch on what had been the fabled US Route 66 – while listening to music that will always remind me of the open road. To the best of my recollection I’ve owned nine cars along the way, from an uncomfortable Land Rover wagon to a money-pit of a Peugeot to my current Prius.

I buy cars so rarely now that I’m always blown away by how much progress has been made in terms of the technology so deeply embedded in engines, brakes and seemingly every other part of a car. In many ways, modern automobiles are already like networked computer systems on wheels – and the driverless cars of our likely future will just build on what we’ve already seen, from hands-free parallel parking to braking assistance.

But, if we don’t pay attention to how they are developed now, driverless cars won’t be a symbol of individual freedom as much as another way in which we’ll have given into the surveillance state.

“Just imagine,” says Google on its official blog:

You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.

So, go ahead and imagine consider some other, less rosy, scenarios:

  • You’re working on a business deal with someone across town, but aren’t ready to make it public. Yet your driverless car is tracking everywhere you go – and the people you’d rather keep out of the loop have gotten access not only to data from your your mobile phone (which you leave at home), but also your car’s time and location data.
  • Your spouse’s divorce lawyer has just issued a subpoena to Google for all of your driving records.
  • Your insurance company, always looking for a way to deny coverage to people who might need it, demands to know why your car has been in certain areas of the city – and cancels your coverage when you decline to explain.
  • Some future government decides that certain areas are off-limits, and orders Google and other automotive software/networking companies to prevent “your” car from going there. Or, one day, normal people discover that vehicles occupied by government officials and rich and powerful individuals are getting priority.
  • Malevolent hackers, perhaps employed by foreign powers, hack or otherwise get access to networks. On a day of their choosing, they shut down traffic in major cities – or, worse, engineer crashes that take an enormous toll on life and property.

All of this is about control – and who has it when it comes to our freedom of movement. Future riders will have some freedom to move – as long as governments and corporations don’t interfere – but no freedom to move without others watching and storing everything.

Maybe this is all inevitable, but shouldn’t we be discussing this before we bow to the latest gods of progress? Google and the other companies in this growing field are happy to tell us how much we need their solutions. Let’s have a conversation about what we’ll lose.

The Economist in Handless carriage takes a mixed stance, part “wow-what-will-they- think-of-next” enthusiasm and “it’ll-never-work” scepticism.  Not much about the obvious privacy issues, beyond a nod to hacking concerns.

It provides:

IT HAS long been the stuff of science fiction, but autonomous driving is about to steer a lot closer to reality when Google begins testing a fleet of self-driving cars later this year. The move positions Google as one of the leaders in the field, but virtually every big car maker is now working on similar technology. Last year, for instance, Nissan announced it wants to put its first fully autonomous vehicle into production by 2020. Yet most of the incumbents take a more incremental approach than Google.

The technology giant is planning only to produce 100 autonomous prototypes, a quirky little electric vehicles with a range of 100 miles and a top speed of 25mph. From the outside, they look like a cross between a Volkswagen Beetle and a Smart Fortwo microcar. They will feature a soft nose and a flexible windscreen—just in case they hit a pedestrian.

But what sets these vehicles really apart is the lack of controls that have been part of every car produced since the dawn of the horseless carriage. Only a handful of the Google’s prototypes will be equipped with steering wheel and pedals. After that, they will only feature an on/off button and controls allowing the riders to input a destination—by voice, of course. “Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving could become a thing of the past,” explains Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s autonomous vehicle programme.

Big carmakers agree with the general direction. Andy Palmer, Nissan’s global product chief in America, for instance, is confident that fully-autonomous vehicles will come to market sooner, rather than later, almost certainly within the decade. Yet others, such as Jim Lentz, Toyota’s American boss, are betting that “assisted” driving will be the direction the industry takes, at least in the near to mid-term.

As a result, strategies differ. Nissan, like Google, is planning to go with a fully autonomous vehicle. German carmakers, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, are taking a similar approach, as is Detroit-based Cadillac. Toyota, for its part, is one of the manufacturers focused more on offering motorists a helping hand rather than replacing humans completely.

Most of the autonomous vehicles big carmakers are working on—including Nissan’s—will retain conventional controls. Many motorists will want to be able to take charge for an emergency or simply for the pleasure of driving. Regulators will also require such redundancy, for instance in Nevada, the first state to craft regulations for autonomous vehicles. (Google’s Mr Urmson is hoping California will allow fully autonomous prototypes as it will craft regulations of its own later this year.)

It is unlikely that Google and the incumbents will compete head-to-head. The Silicon Valley firm may go it alone—like its neighbour Tesla Motors. But more likely, Google will partner with one or more existing carmaker who would license its self-driving technology. “Our vision is to bring this technology to the world, and we’ll find a way to do it,” says Mr Urmson.

Rinspeed, a Swiss consultancy, recently offered a hint of what is possible with its XchangE concept vehicle at the Geneva Motor Show in March. The front seats swivel 180 degrees to create a rolling living room. And as long as everyone’s comfortable, they might as well be entertained by the show car’s large pop-up flat screen TV. There are also pop-up trays and even an espresso machine. Oh, and should anyone want to actually drive, there’s a foldaway steering wheel.

“So far hardly anyone has taken this to its logical conclusion from the perspective of the driver,” explains Frank Rinderknecht, founder and chairman of Rinspeed. “After all, traveling in a driverless car will no longer require me to stare at the road, but will let me spend my time in a more meaningful way.”

The technology to do all this is almost there—but drivers may not be. Just 12% of Americans wouldn’t be at least a little worried about turning over driving duties to their car, a Harris Poll found in February. More than 50% said they were worried about hackers; 79% questioned whether the necessary gear might fail at some point. Considering the flood of recalls this year, it is no big surprise that motorists and passengers might be more worried than the companies that are rushing to tell the public: “Leave the driving to us.”

And on the subject of hacking and cars the Age reports in ‘White hat’ Jonathan Brossard warns cars can be hacked on the road that internet related technology in modern cars can be hacked and, possibly, hijacked.  Such is the downside of the internet of things.  This, amongst other, issue will need to be resolved to consumers’ satisfaction before they are prepared to sit in a driverless car even if the problem potentially exists in current models of “driver required” cars.

The article provides:

You are driving your car when suddenly you discover you are no longer in control. Somebody has hacked into your vehicle’s on-board computer and taken over.

If this sounds like a Hollywood plot or a Top Gear stunt, you are wrong. It can actually be done and Sydney hacker Jonathan Brossard knows how to do it.

The threat from hackers has been in the news recently, with eBay telling 145 million subscribers to change their passwords after a cyber attack and reports of Apple devices being hijacked last week.

Mr Brossard is a ”white hat” hacker, one of the public defenders whose job is to preserve the integrity of information systems from the attention of the ”black hats”.


The security research engineer does not know of a car that has been hacked on the road but says his company does it for vehicle manufacturers in Europe.

The only way to verify that a car is not subject to cyber attack is to try to break it, fix it and try to break it again, he said.

”The vehicle is remote from me. I am sitting at the desk and I am using the computer and driving your car from another country. I am saying it is possible.

”A car is, technically speaking, very much like a cell phone and that makes it vulnerable to attack from the internet,” he said. ”An attack is not unlikely.”

Mr Brossard acted as consultant for a video game called Watch Dogs, which was released last week and is set in Chicago. The game explores the impact of technology where everything is controlled by one computer and railways, traffic lights and energy systems are all vulnerable to the hacker.

He believes the game could stimulate interest in a world in which there is a need for more ”white hats”.

”We have come to the point where there is a massive shortage of such people,” Mr Brossard said. ”Australia is no exception and every country in the world is pretty much in the same situation.

”We are definitely not winning the battle. Hacktackers have become better and better while defensive systems have not significantly changed.”

The murky world of hacking gets a public airing each year at the Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas.

At this year’s conference in August he says attention will turn to an open back door allowing someone to take control of your computer remotely. He says it already infects 2 million computers worldwide, including Australian machines made by mainstream manufacturers.

One Response to “Google’s driveless car and privacy”

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