Correction appended January 15th at 12:56 pm
The Detroit auto show is usually one big pep rally for the industry, an event where car makers get to show off the latest models to come off the assembly line as well as some futuristic-looking concept cars to get the public excited about the industry’s future. But the industry couldn’t help but address one of the issues that has been dogging it in recent weeks: consumer privacy.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, Ford’s global vice-president of marketing and sales Jim Farley, was forced to backtrack and apologize after saying that new GPS technology in Ford vehicles could gather loads of information about a driver, like when he or she is speeding. Said Farely:
“We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.”
Farley later recanted, saying that this ability was hypothetical and said of his company, “We do not track our customers in their cars without their approval or their consent.”
But the gaffe fell hard upon a report issued earlier this month from the Government Accountability Office which criticized some car companies for not being forthcoming about their data collection practices, and it underscores how the issue of privacy will continue to be a hot topic in the coming year. Silicon Valley may be used to fighting battles over consumer privacy, but as the Internet begins to touch everything from thermostats to vehicles, consumer privacy will increasingly be a subject we’re all concerned about. Here are 4 of the biggest privacy issues on advocates radar:
1. Law Enforcement Co-opts GPS Devices: Despite the assurances of Ford, it appears that at least some car companies, GPS, and cellphone service providers are handing over information about where drivers have been to law enforcement. According to the ACLU:
“The Justice Department and most local police forces are currently tracking Americans’ cell phones without getting warrants – but just how common and widespread the practice is remains unclear. We do know that the cases number well into the thousands, possibly the tens of thousands. Some of them are especially disturbing, for instance, in 2010, Michigan police officers sought information about every cell phone near the site of a planned labor protest.”
2. Police Department and Private Use of Drones: In a TIME cover story published last year, Lev Grossman called drones, “the most powerful surveillance tool ever devised, on- or offline.” Law enforcement is taking notice of the power of unmanned drones to help collect information about suspect, as the possibilities of drones use in investigation are endless. Grossman points out an example of a North Dakota Sheriff borrowing a drone from a local air force base to help him surveil suspected thieves.
But it’s not just the government. Grossman gave examples of an animal rights group which used a drone to spy on a South-Carolina pigeon hunt, and suggested that eventually a private citizen will use these increasingly cheap devices to spy on his neighbors. Lawmakers like Massachussetts State Senator Bob Hedlund are scrambling to come up with laws that protect citizens from intrustive drones, but it may take years to get a handle on the implications of this emergent technology.
3. Retailers and Facial Recognition Technology: We’re all used to seeing security cameras in retail stores, but few realize how powerful and ubiqiutous in-store cameras have become. Retailers like U.K.-based Tesco are already rolling out facial recognition software at its gas stations that will display different ads to customers based on their age and gender, and privacy advocates worry that unchecked the practice will expand to a point where retailers can personally identify shoppers and pair that information with financial histories and much else.
4. Smart Appliances Watching Your Every Move: Google’s recent announcement that it spent $3.2 billion to acquire smart-thermostat manufacturer Nest signaled to the world that the so-called Internet of Things has arrived. Analysts have been predicting a wave of internet-connected appliances for a couple years now, and we’ve already seen a host of connected televisions, video cameras, and phones invade American homes.
Last summer, researchers at iSEC Partners found a flaw in Samsung’s line of smart TVs that would enable hackers to gain access to the television, including it’s built-in camera. In December, Justin Brookman, Director, CDT’s Project on Consumer Privacy raised concerns over Samsung TVs logging what television programs its viewers watched. Samsung announced shortly thereafter that it would enable users to opt out of this practice after a software update, but the incident raises the question of how much our internet-connected devices know about us. This problem will only become more severe once your toaster is surfing the net, too.
The original version of this story incorrectly stated that jewelry story Tarina Tarantino employs facial recognition software. It does not.