GAO: Carmakers Collect And Keep Drivers’ Location Information


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The Government Accountability Office released a report Monday that reveals major carmakers are collecting information about where motorists travel, and that they retain that info indefinitely — without any legal obligation to dispose of it.

The GAO report indicates auto manufacturers use drivers’ factory-installed onboard navigation systems, such as General Motors’ OnStar, to collect location information, and that each company follows its own internal policy about how long that information is retained.

Additionally, car owners — almost none of whom even know about the automakers’ practice — have no recourse to ask the companies to dispose of their location information.

Car companies have justified the practice by pointing out the services that location tracking enables them to provide to consumers. By collecting location data, onboard navigation systems can give motorists a slew of location-specific information, including traffic updates, map directions, roadside assistance and stolen vehicle monitoring.

The GAO report covers the information collection practices of the Big Three U.S. automakers, as well as Toyota, Honda and Nissan. “If companies retained data, they did not allow consumers to request that their data be deleted, which is a recommended practice,” the report noted.

The automakers also use the location data to “track where consumers are, which can in turn be used to steal their identity, stalk them or monitor them without their knowledge,” the report continues. “In addition, location data can be used to infer other sensitive information about individuals such as their religious affiliation or political activities.”

In other words, automakers are exercising the same secretive powers as the National Security Agency — only they’re being paid by customers for the privilege.

In spite of that similarity, so far only Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) has publicly condemned the practice.

“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,” said Franken, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, in a prepared statement Monday. “Companies providing in-car location services are taking their customers’ privacy seriously — but 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.”

Hopefully, the small handful of Congressmen who have an actual track record of standing up for Americans’ 4th Amendment rights will expand upon, and strengthen, Franken’s benign comments. Otherwise, this story will probably slide innocuously back into the low-contrast hum of the 24-hour news cycle until someone decides to file a class-action lawsuit.

Personal Liberty

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

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