Tesla knows where you drove last winter -- and a lot more

Company data logs reveal how Times reporter John Broder drove the Tesla Model S, and even more about how easily cars can snoop on you.

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What Musk did not address was whether this kind of logging could be secretly turned on for a Tesla vehicle if, say, the cops showed up with a warrant for it. Pretty much every privacy policy on the planet carves out an exception for this kind of request, for obvious reasons, but how the companies respond to them varies. (For example, Google says it will turn over customer data for a warrant but not for a subpoena, which requires far less judicial oversight.)

What also varies is how much data is collected, how long it’s retained, and whether it’s tied to the vehicle identification number, the identity of the car’s owner, or other personal information. Tesla’s Web site completely fails to address these issues. I’ve sent an email to the company; I’ll update this post if they respond.

Why is this important? Even if you have no plans to buy a $101,000 Tesla Model S, the next new car you buy may have a similar ‘black box’ event data recorder built in. Last December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new rules requiring all new cars to ship with an EDR (black box) inside.

The primary argument for this is safety; a black box can determine the cause of crashes and offer valuable data on how to build safer cars. But it can be used just as easily to snoop on you – making your insurance rates dependent on how good a driver you are, for example. Progressive Insurance is already doing that in 39 states. Its Snapshot device doesn’t record vehicle location or speed, but the technology to do that is cheap and easily available.

These EDRs are mostly after-the-crash devices, but that doesn’t mean they have to be. There are plenty of cheap aftermarket gizmos that can track your car’s speed, location, time of day, and risky behaviors such as slamming the brakes, skidding around corners, or stomping on the accelerator – and upload all of that data to a Web page. I have one installed on my 16-year-old son’s car right now, to keep a watchful eye on his driving. (For the record, he’s a better driver than I am.)  If it’s this easy for me to get at this data, what’s to stop the cops?

Once the authorities routinely gain access to the moment-by-moment record of my driving, the next folks who’ll ask for it are the DMV, followed by insurance companies,  divorce attorneys, and anyone else who feels like suing me. That’s how it’s gone with things like FastPass data; why should EDR data be any different?

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