Bridge Span 18-6: Your Privacy at Risk When Government Drives Your Car?

The sudden outrage expressed leading up to the Facebook hearings was more than a little surprising. After decades of talk about privacy and that consumers were giving away volumes of information online for very little in return, they suddenly seem to have come to understand that when one makes information “public” on social media or other websites that the information is in fact public. Perhaps the silver lining will be a heightened sense of individual ownership in details about themselves, a turn to good old individual responsibility. But while the country is distracted by the current outrage, other security and privacy challenges lurk nearby as our cars may start reporting on us.

In 1999, the FCC set aside the 5.9 GHz band of spectrum for “Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC)” and “Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS),” a vehicle to vehicle communications system, programs of the Department of Transportation. Despite every advantage being provided nothing resulted over time even, except the wasting of more than $1 billion in taxpayer money. But regardless, in December of 2016, the Obama administration in its very last moments proposed a pricey mandate requiring that that all new cars and trucks have DSRC technology embedded in them. And again, nothing happened. The Transportation Department last said it was still reviewing comments over a year later. Others have indicated a decision was being made at “higher levels” in the new administration as to what to do next. In the meantime, the marketplace has marched on using radar, lidar and cameras.

That block of spectrum cordoned off for this government adventure has become increasingly valuable over the decades. Valuable in terms of money certainly, but more importantly the band had become valuable in terms innovation opportunity. For years, the 5.9 GHz band has been desired to provide additional wireless bandwidth, recognizing that this band of spectrum is what will help consumers get to gigabit wi-fi. The band is very well suited to serving taxpayers directly, by providing them a means of receiving faster mobile broadband now, providing greater speeds for the last 100 feet.

In addition to wasted money and lost opportunity, a very real problem has been one of privacy and security. In the case of these government technologies, the privacy challenges make those for social media look easy.

That the internet was not built with security and privacy as part of its design is a glitch that has haunted the internet industry. So, since the beginning, such features have had to have been “bolted on” to try to provide enough security to consumers that they would feel comfortable using and storing their information via the web. Because the cars would be communicating, DSRC and other vehicle to vehicle technologies raise all of the same privacy and security issues. The DoT record is filled with concerns about hacks, spoofing, phishing and false information that are real obstacles to a fully trusted vehicle communications system.

Placing those same potential vulnerabilities behind the wheel of a car is a poor idea. But, the biggest privacy challenge may come from elsewhere.
Government has been trying to get behind the wheel for years, and that goal is nearer at hand more now than ever. As identified years ago by Kamila Pajer, in, “Many countries are seriously considering introducing surveillance tools and road pricing systems based on Global Positioning System (GPS) and Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology that will trace cars and tax their drivers.” But it gets worse. “If the technology allows,” she wrote, these governments might “even decide where and at what speed the vehicle goes if it allows it to move at all.” Years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board was already requiring that electronic data recorders be included in all new cars made in the U.S., and the DoT was already at work on the ITS and DRSC. These technologies go well beyond GPS and GSM when it comes to tracking cars.

This government created communications technology is being pitched as a means to relieve congestion and improve safety, but it could turn out to be a tool that allows the state or hackers to invade privacy and risk our safety. The application of technology should increase privacy and freedom, not deprive it. Improperly used, the freedom-enhancing benefits of technology can turn into shackles that limit and constrain. The government industrial policy efforts around automated vehicles should end, for the sake of our safety, security and privacy.

Comments are closed.