What Privacy? The Washington Post Took Apart A Chevy Volt To See If It Watches Your Every Move

In short: Yikes.

What Privacy? The Washington Post Took Apart A Chevy Volt To See If It Watches Your Every Move
This investigation focused on a 2017 Chevy Volt. [Photo: Chevrolet]

We live in a technology-laden, interconnected world. That should come as a surprise to no one, as I’m writing from a laptop, I have a smartphone in my pocket, and I drive a fairly modern car. While we’ve heard time and again about the privacy issue as it relates to computers and phones, the issue hasn’t been as prevalent in our cars — until now.

Washington Post investigation looked into just how much data your car was retaining about you, and the answer is nothing short of distressing, at least if you seriously value your privacy. 

Geoffrey Fowler explained the situation as he drove a newer Chevy Volt:

“On a recent drive, a 2017 Chevrolet collected my precise location. It stored my phone’s ID and the people I called. It judged my acceleration and braking style, beaming back reports to its maker General Motors over an always-on Internet connection.”

That last part really hits home in showing just how much your car watches your every move. In the background, it takes all that data, and most everything you feed into it through your smartphone connection, back to the manufacturer without much, if any, notification that it’s happening. From 2020 onward, this sort of surveillance will become even more widespread as automakers fit always-on modems into their latest models. Ford, General Motors and BMW, for example, all offer built-in Wi-Fi as a free feature or as an extra-cost add-on. But that Internet connection is obviously a two-way street, and your car can send all that information wherever the manufacturer wants it to go.

What Privacy? The Washington Post Took Apart A Chevy Volt To See If It Watches Your Every Move
Systems like Cadillac Super Cruise actively monitor the driver.

You don’t own your car’s data

Here’s another impactful quote from Fowler’s Washington Post article:

When I buy a car, I assume the data I produce is owned by me — or at least is controlled by me. Many automakers do not. They act like how and where we drive, also known as telematics, isn’t personal information.

Engineer Jim Mason hacks into new and connected cars to a firm called ARCCA that uses the information to better understand crashes and thefts. On that basis, connected services do provide useful information, which can help improve safety and even ensure owners stay on top of their cars’ maintenance schedules.

That’s not where car data collection ends, though. To find out just how much personal data the car can collect, Fowler and Mason’s investigation focused on one area of the car we deal with the most: the infotainment system. After unburying the Volt’s infotainment computer from the dashboard (not something that’s recommended at home), they found out just how much information it collected.

The Volt had gathered unique identifiers for Fowler’s phone and the car’s owner who had volunteered his Volt for this investigation, as well as detailed phone logs from the past week. That information included names, numbers, e-mail addresses and even photos. Beyond that, it showed exactly where Fowler drove the car to take it apart, as well as various errands. He even bought a used infotainment system off eBay for Mason to take apart, and that investigation revealed a trove of information about the previous owner.

“You signed on for it”

Electric cars paint a new, potentially disturbing picture for data collection. The Tesla Model 3, for instance, can collect video information from the car’s cameras. Facial data may be stored as internal cameras track the driver to make sure they’re paying attention. Some companies give owners more access to this data than others. Most automakers also take a similar view to how the data collection takes place. GM spokesperson David Caldwell told the Washington Post, “Nothing happens without customer consent.”

At the moment, there are no federal laws restricting how manufacturers collect data. Owners sign on to have their data collected as part of buying and personalizing their cars, but they don’t have control over what, when, and how much data is collected about their unique habits.

So, for the time being, privacy is a serious issue with new cars. Automakers can collect and share information, and even just plugging your phone into the infotainment system can put your data at risk. It’s worth checking out the entire investigation here. Fowler’s article goes into further detail on the scope of the issue, which by no means is strictly limited to GM.