Technology (2014)

„Spies in our Cars“

The BigBrotherAward in the “Technology” category goes to the “Spies in our Cars”, which look over our shoulders wherever we drive, collecting data, and sometimes even uploading it to the “cloud”. It is difficult to name a culprit: car manufacturers cite legal requirements on the one hand, and on the other hand they point to third-party providers that offer services such as localisation and navigation to the driver. This BigBrotherAward also looks to the future: the planned European distress call system “e-Call” will have to prove in practice that it really has been implemented in a way that respects privacy.
Frank Rosengart am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Frank Rosengart, Chaos Computer Club (CCC)

The BigBrotherAward 2014 in the “Technology” Category goes to the Spies in our Cars.

Normally we like to call those responsible for violating our privacy by name. But in this case it is difficult, because car manufacturers, suppliers and the legislature are currently so busy in creating an all-encompassing surveillance of road users that we cannot consider the parts in isolation. And, not least, some of the technologies described here are not yet ready for mass production. For these reasons, we give this award for the entire planned undertaking, in order to emphasise the worrying tendencies.

Let’s start with the partially good news. The European distress call system “e-Call”, also much criticised from a data protection perspective, which can autonomously make an emergency call via its own SIM card in case of an accident, is not designed to become a data leech – at least according to a EU directive. Their SIM cards are not supposed to be logged into the mobile phone network and thus create a continuous trace of data. It is however at the car manufacturers’ discretion to activate further services rather than the pure “e-Call” function. In this case the device would operate like an ordinary mobile phone. Driver’s should therefore ask very precise questions when buying a new car.

There are other developments in the automotive industry that are very worrying from a privacy perspective. Coming to us from the USA is a new discussion about mandatory accident data recorders (black boxes), which in case of an accident record relevant parameters, such as speed, acceleration/deceleration, turn indicators, etc. Here in Germany we are sceptical about such an obligation, not least because of the implications for surveillance, creating a “transparent driver”. But hardly anyone is aware of the fact that such black boxes are already present in every recent car. For example, airbag control units of almost all manufacturers record the parameters that are relevant for setting off the airbag. This serves as an insurance for the manufacturer against claims of having unnecessarily triggered the device.

This kind of data recorder can give rise to a problem for the driver: in case of an accident (or possibly even in case of a severe violation of traffic rules), police can impound the vehicle, including the control unit, and read out the stored data. This would effectively circumvent the right to refuse to give evidence. At the very least the driver should be made aware of the existence of this black box.

Other systems beside the airbag control unit also record numerous parameters that may give away information about driving behaviour, from the engine control unit to the central locking system. As soon as the car is connected to the maintenance computer at an authorised repair shop, the manufacturer will “hoover up” all sorts of technical data from the on-board computers. The car owner will not be informed of this, let alone asked for explicit permission. Quite the contrary: modern cars cannot be repaired without these analysis computers, and some manufacturers even keep the service record as a database on a centralised server. There is the danger that even personalised data may make its way from the car to the repair shop. Car manufacturers quite naturally view these data as “theirs”, as emphasised by Volkswagen CEO Winterkorn.

As a driver myself, I disagree. It seems like I will have something to discuss on my next visit to the repair shop.

From a privacy perspective, new components of on-board entertainment and navigation systems constitute a dangerous conglomerate. The traditional car radio is no more, especially in high-priced cars:

Instead of developing systems in-house, manufacturers prefer Google’s Android operating system. This enables the on-board computer not only to receive broadcast radio and show the fastest route: with additional apps, people will be able to use any Google services and a web browser and even read e-mails and twitter messages directly on the dashboard, or have them read out via the car speaker system. So if I want to use the advantages of a modern on-board computer, I may be forcefully fed to the Google data leech.

As with mobile phones, Google software for Android is often cloud-based to a high degree. Data is not processed on the device itself, but on servers owned by Google or some other service provider. For example, if the driver wants to have the shortest route from A to B calculated, this is not performed by the on-board computer. Rather, the request is transmitted to the navigation service provider, is processed there, and sent back to the car. Typically the transmissions will include a personal identification or at least an identification of the vehicle, which can later be used to trace who wanted to go where.

As a driver I should always read the privacy statement very carefully, to get an idea of what is going to happen to my data. If such information is available at all:

Audi’s premium service called “Audi Connect”, for example, re-routes all personal communications on Twitter etc. through their own server, purportedly for security reasons. When asked, Audi was unable to provide a privacy statement valid in Germany for this service.

Not a complete novelty are localisation services used to retrieve the vehicles in case of theft; these have been installed in higher-end cars for years. They are always active and collect data, even if the car has not been stolen. For a fee, some vendors offer additional services for tracking the car permanently: nosy parents can keep their children under surveillance and jealous partners can spy on each other.

Thanks to e-Call, his technology will soon be available not only in high-end cars, but in every passenger vehicle.

This data will be of particular interest to insurance companies, but we already awarded a BigBrotherAward in 2007 to special insurance tariffs based on driver surveillance.

Dear car manufacturers, even if you feel that this is none of your concern, because the data is stored “by someone else”, or storage is even “legally mandated” – this BigBrotherAward is for you. But, of course, it is also for the legislature for creating, with systems such as e-Call, the technical basis for privacy-sensitive extra services.

Congratulations for the BigBrotherAward 2014!


Frank Rosengart am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Frank Rosengart, Chaos Computer Club (CCC)

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

Organised by (among others):

BigBrother Awards International (Logo)

BigBrotherAwards International

The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.