Tom Tom's sleazy way to make up GPS revenue shortfall

Dutch navigation device maker sold customer driving data to police to catch speeders

Makers of stand-alone automobile navigation devices are losing sales as more mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets include GPS apps.

Dutch manufacturer Tom Tom thought it could compensate for the sales decline by tapping into an emerging market -- local and regional governments in the Netherlands that use the data from drivers' GPS devices to catch speeders.

How do you say "That's a stupid idea" in Dutch?

As one might imagine, Tom Tom has caught a ton of flak for selling the driver GPS data to police and has issued an apology.

From the Associated Press:

TomTom NV, Europe's largest navigation device maker, went into damage control mode Wednesday after it emerged that Dutch police have been using data collected from drivers who use the company's products to set speed traps.

Earlier, TomTom had reported weak first quarter earnings in which it cut 2011 sales forecasts and said it was seeking to compensate for a decline in demand for personal navigation devices by growing service revenues, including selling traffic data to governments.

Let's hope struggling BlackBerry maker Research in Motion doesn't get any ideas from this.

Tom Tom CEO Harold Goddijn issued an apology, claiming that the GPS maker thought the driver data would be used by law-enforcement authorities to improve road safety and ease traffic jams.

"We never foresaw this kind of use and many of our clients are not happy about it," he wrote in an email Wednesday.

Because who would ever expect police anywhere to misuse information? (Insert "what has Goddijn been smoking?" joke here.)

Tom Tom subsequently added a "this is what we really do with your data" explanation to its website:

When you use one of our products we ask for your permission to collect travel time information on an anonymous basis. The vast majority of you do indeed grant us that permission. When you connect your TomTom to a computer we aggregate this information and use it for a variety of applications, most importantly to create high quality traffic information and to route you around traffic jams.

We also make this information available to local governments and authorities. It helps them to better understand where congestion takes place, where to build new roads and how to make roads safer.

Um, make that "sell" this information.

We are now aware that the police have used traffic information that you have helped to create to place speed cameras at dangerous locations where the average speed is higher than the legally allowed speed limit. We are aware a lot of our customers do not like the idea and we will look at if we should allow this type of usage.

"We will look at if we should allow this type of usage"? That's reassuring.

To be clear, it's not as if the Dutch police are getting information about specific drivers and ticketing them because their GPS revealed they were speeding last week, or whenever. But how far away are we from that here? And how certain can we be that the information truly is anonymous? One would hope we've learned by now that taking corporations at their word regarding privacy issues is a mistake.

Is this yet another glimpse of the emerging perpetual surveillance state?

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