Car and hand holding smartphone

The Privacy Risks of Your Car

Last edited: December 9, 2019
Reading time: 8 minutes, 51 seconds

Cars are more connected to the wider world than ever before. You can simply press a button to get roadside assistance, unlock your car, or even start it remotely. Moreover, you can pull up driving directions on a touch screen before switching it over to connect with Pandora or Spotify. Our cars can even provide a Wi-Fi access point for everyone in the car. While these conveniences are great for consumers, they also carry risks to our privacy. Privacy experts worry that our smart cars might be exposing information we’d prefer to keep private, and that while most of us aren’t even aware of the risks.

Your Car Knows More Than You Think

Smart car identifying other car on the roadFor over five years now, Google and other companies have possessed the ability to manufacture a car that can drive itself without human guidance. Yet we still step in our cars every morning, get behind the wheel and drive ourselves. The reason for this is that this new technology poses obvious risks to our safety and is therefore being thoroughly studied and improved until it’s completely safe to use.

The risks to our safety posed by vehicles that are connected to the internet are much less obvious. For the most part, manufacturers and consumers haven’t hesitated to add touch screen systems that connect with their phones. The benefits of these systems are enormous, both in convenience and safety while driving. However, the risks to our privacy have been largely ignored.

As the pace of change in technology continues to accelerate, it’s important to consider the risks involved. We are only now beginning to realize the potential harm of gaps in (online) security. Before connecting to your car’s smart system, take a few moments to consider the risks to your privacy. Here are a couple of questions and potential dangers that you might want to be aware of.

Who Owns Your Data?

Any modern car generates tons of data on even the shortest drive. Speed, acceleration, engine rpm’s and more – everything is controlled and measured by your car’s computer. This information is readily available from the vehicle and might even be transmitted back to the manufacturer for collection. Car manufacturers often consider themselves to be the owners of this information, while it says a lot about you and your driving behavior.

The sophisticated systems that allow you to connect your phone to the touchscreen in your car are built into the vehicle. The screen itself, the stereo system and navigation controls are all part of the system you connect to. This brings us to an important question. As your information passes through these systems, do you retain ownership of it?

Few car manufacturers, if any, spell out who owns the data that passes through their smart systems. This is a lot of data, ranging from your location to your messages and best friends’ phone numbers. Every route you take is mapped by the system, and your email and social media notifications are passed through it as well. The music you listen to from your phone’s Pandora or Spotify account goes through your car’s information system, too. How much of that data can the manufacturer access, and who owns all that information about you?

Data About Your Location is Valuable

Map with locationAdvertisers constantly crave more information about consumers. The more accurate your profile is, the better they can sell you their products. This is why companies such as Google are able to earn billions of dollars. Google collects information about the ads you click on, your web searches, and more. This enables them to build an incredibly accurate profile of you. Generally, however, this data is confined to your online activities.

Location data can give advertisers valuable information about your life outside of the internet. Where you live, work, and shop is no longer just your business. If you were specifically asked, you’d likely never willingly turn over all this information to an advertiser, yet it’s priceless for building an accurate profile. Location data could reveal when you started visiting a new doctor, where you drop your kids off at school, what time you leave for work, and how long you spend stuck in traffic.

This information is all available through your car’s smart information system. As this data is valuable, it could almost certainly be used to help advertisers build your profile. Protecting your privacy will never become a high priority for car manufacturers unless it becomes a high priority to you. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the risks.

Your Car Could Be Hacked

You may have heard stories about hackers taking over the controls of a car. With the right tools and access, a hacker could seize control of the breaks, engine, headlights, and other functionalities of your care. However, this fortunately requires the hacker to gain physical access to your vehicle for some period of time. Therefore, the odds of this happening to you are still remote. Just make sure you only allow people you trust inside your car, so you can be sure the only one in control of the car while you’re driving, is you.

Gaining access to your smart car’s information system, on the other hand, is much easier. Your car usually connects to your phone through a Bluetooth connection. Unfortunately, Bluetooth isn’t completely safe. There are several ways in which this connection could be compromised. This allows hackers to gain access to the information flowing through the connection. Because this weakness was previously undetectable, there was no security in place for it. Therefore, the information passing through your car’s smart information system may well be hackable to anyone passing your vehicle, as long as they have the right equipment.

What You Stand to Lose

If the information passing through your car’s information system is hacked or sold to advertisers, this is an attack on your privacy. Anyone with access to this information could read notifications from your email or social media. They could easily discover where you live and where you work. By spotting trends in your data, a hacker could know what time you leave for work, leaving your home open to theft. After all, the thieves will know exactly when to strike without you being there to stop them.

Beyond the sensitive information that could be shared without your knowledge, the mere sense of invasion of privacy that comes from having someone access your private life could have its consequences as well. Once violated, your sense of privacy may never return in the same way. The peace of mind you have now could easily become history once something serious happens due to a loss of privacy. So, what can you do to keep this from happening? We’ve got a couple of tips for you.

How Can You Protect Your Privacy?

Like all other electric devices, cars have evolved and will likely keep evolving in the future. Moreover, advertisers, hackers, and other groups will keep on hunting for your personal information. Does this mean you have to give up on modern technology and get an old car without a touch screen or Bluetooth connection? Not necessarily. Follow these following tips, and you’ll be good to go.

Ask for the privacy policy

List with magnifying glassWhen buying a car, don’t be afraid to ask about the manufacturer’s privacy policy. Don’t be surprised if the salesman doesn’t have an easy answer for you, either. The privacy policy will tell you what happens to your information, who has access to it, and who owns it. This is important for you to know.

Keep in mind that it might take a while for the seller to find the policy, as not many people tend to ask for it. However, if you, along with others, keep insisting on the importance of this issue, dealers will take notice and begin to push for change as well. Instead of just making sure the privacy policy of your current car fits your wishes, you’ll also work towards ensuring policies in the future will take customer privacy more seriously.

Don’t connect when you don’t need to

Before connecting to your car’s smart system, take a moment to think of whether it benefits you on that particular trip. Will you be using the navigation? Can you wait to view notifications until you reach your destination? Instead of connecting out of habit, consider the potential risks ahead of time. If you aren’t always connected, your car won’t know everything about you.

Anonymize your data with a VPN

Your car can hardly gather your data and endanger your privacy if there isn’t any personal information to collect in the first place. This is why you should always take steps to up your privacy before connecting via Bluetooth. Anonymous data that doesn’t lead back to you is almost useless to third parties. If you can take simple steps to distance yourself from your information, we advise you do so. One easy way to keep your information anonymous is to use a VPN.

When you connect through a VPN, your data is encrypted before being sent on to an anonymous VPN server. From there, it’s sent to the destination you’re trying to reach. This way, you don’t connect directly to a website or online service. All your data always goes through the VPN server first. That server passes your request on and receives information back from the site. Because the online service never deals with you directly, both the request and you remain private. The VPN then encrypts the data and sends it back to you.

This middleman approach protects your privacy, while still providing high-speed access to the online services you have come to depend on. In addition, a VPN can help you avoid geographic restrictions or firewalls between you and specific information. To learn more about different VPNs and how they might help protect your privacy, check out our post on choosing the best VPN for your needs.

Final thoughts

The options that modern cars offer their drivers are incredibly useful and fun. However, it’s good to be slightly wary of this technology as well. Make sure companies don’t run off with your personal information by taking charge of your own privacy. If you check out the privacy policy of your car’s manufacturer, stay disconnected when you can, and use a VPN to protect your data, you’ll have very little to worry about. With these tips, you can continue to enjoy all the advantages of having a modern car without the extra stress of a possible privacy breach.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. Since 2019 she is VPNoverview.com's cybersecurity news coordinator.

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