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Experts say modern cars can violate consumer privacy

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For generations, the car in America has come to symbolize freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There are a couple of things America got right - cars and freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And the freedom of wide-open space disappearing into endless sky.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's not just a car. It's your freedom, an open ticket to ride.

DETROW: And for many, freedom and privacy go hand in hand. It's hard to have one without the other. But according to a new report, your car could be worse than your phone when it comes to privacy. As cars become more like computers on wheels with apps and smart screens and cameras and endless digitized features, there are more and more opportunities for car companies to collect user data. A recent report from the Mozilla Foundation's Privacy Not Included, which researches and publishes consumer guides on privacy, details the many security risks associated with cars. Among all the products the organization has ever reviewed, cars have gotten the worst privacy ratings. None of the car companies they reviewed met their minimum privacy safety standards.

Jen Caltrider is the lead at Privacy Not Included and joins me now. Thanks for talking with me, Jen.

JEN CALTRIDER: Well, thank you for having me.

DETROW: So in one of the posts that you all wrote about this report, there was a sentence that jumped out at me, and I'm just going to read it and start there.

(Reading) There's probably no other product that can collect as much information about what you do, where you go, what you say and even how you move your body with, quote, "gestures" than your car.

That was really surprising to me. And then I thought about it for a few minutes. And I thought, well, maybe that shouldn't be surprising. Like, what is going on here? And how new is this phenomenon?

CALTRIDER: Yeah. You know, people don't buy cars as often as we buy phones or download apps or things like that. So it might come as a surprise to people that cars are computers on wheels or even, in some cases, maybe even robots on wheels. You know, they have sensors that can track us and not just where we're going, but how much we weigh and how we're moving, how many people are in the vehicle. There's microphones. There's cameras facing in. There's cameras facing out. Cars now come with ways to share data, cellular data or Wi-Fi data out from the car that are kind of invisible to people. And then there's the connected services, the things that you use to navigate or listen to the radio or, you know, call emergency services and apps. Cars come with apps now that let you remotely start them or honk the horn. All of that is collecting tons of data.

DETROW: Do you have a sense where this data is going? Because some of it makes sense. Like, I don't love the idea of a car tracking everywhere I'm going and my speeds and patterns, but I understand these automated systems that are in the name of car safety - right? - trying to sense when a crash might be coming or things like that. But a lot of this stuff that you talked about has absolutely nothing to do with driving a car. Where is that information going?

CALTRIDER: Oh, gosh. Well, the car companies collect it and then they have it. They own it. And they say they can share it in tons and tons of places. Like you think of car companies, they're huge. They can share it with affiliates, with service providers. They can sell it to people that buy data to make more money often, like data brokers. One of the things that really raised our eyebrows of how they're - they say they can share this data is we saw companies say they could share data with law enforcement or government based on something as simple as an informal request.

And, you know, you don't want a company sharing your personal information with law enforcement. You know, you want them to get a court order and then limit the amount of information that that court order requires them to give up as much as possible. And car companies saying, hey, you know, an informal request from law enforcement or government to share your personal information really raised eyebrows first because that's such a low bar. And, you know, when you've got things that contain microphones and cameras and GPS tracking, it really starts to get a little creepy when you think about how that could be abused.

DETROW: What was the biggest surprise to you from this research that you did?

CALTRIDER: The fact that all 25 of the car brands that we reviewed earned our Privacy Not Included warning label is a real shocker because, you know, we've been doing Privacy Not Included since 2017. And we try and tell people, hey, privacy is important, buy this, not that. You know, your privacy will do better. We can't do that with cars. Every single car brand that we reviewed is bad. It felt like car companies didn't consider privacy at all when they were writing their privacy policies, and that's really bad for consumers.

DETROW: So in the meantime, what's one or two specific things that somebody can do to cut down on this other than just, like, ride a bike to work? I don't know. Like, if you have to be in a car, what would you suggest?

CALTRIDER: Don't download the app once you get a new car. Opt out of as much data collection as you can. Ask companies to delete your data, but depending on where you live, they might not because they aren't required to by law. A lot of these are Band-Aids that aren't going to be super effective. I actually think the best thing people can do right now is just to be mad about this and to contact their elected official and say, hey, can you find a way to do better to regulate these companies for privacy? Because I shouldn't have to be this worried in my car.

DETROW: That's Jen Caltrider, the lead at Privacy Not Included. Thanks so much for talking to us.

CALTRIDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.