Driverless Cars A Threat To Personal Privacy?

Will drivers really be okay with Google tracking everywhere they go in their self-driving car?


Writing in the June issue of Reason, Greg Beato argues that the driverless car future envisioned by Google’s ongoing project, and which James Joyner wrote about last month, are a threat to personal privacy:

[W]hen Google presents its vision of a future where traffic jams have gone the way of pay phones and road rage consists of exchanging angry tweets with strangers about last night’s episode of Celebrity Apprentice, an unspoken presumption underlies the narrative: Everyone is just as jazzed about driverless cars as Google is. In this vision there are no congested lanes caused by Luddites putt-putting down the highway at 80 miles an hour in their 2013 Porsche Boxsters. There are no daredevil pranksters gunning their old-school Camaros through standing red lights and laughing uproariously as all the robo-cars slam on their brakes in precise, automatic deference. Everyone has gotten with the program, thus enabling the attainment of maximum safety, efficiency, and energy conservation.

But is everyone really so eager to see the automobile, which stands as one of history’s great amplifiers of personal autonomy and liberty, evolve into a giant tracking device controlled by a $250 billion corporation that makes its money through an increasingly intimate and obtrusive knowledge of its customers?

Granted, we already use our phones and tablets to tell a growing scrum of data snoops where we go and what we do when we’re not in front of our computers. At this point, however, we can still temper our disclosures fairly easily. We can disable the GPS. We can turn devices off completely or even leave them at home on occasion.

Boot up a Google car, however, and it’s not so easy to cut the connection with the online mothership. If you use it as intended—i.e., in driverless mode—you immediately start sending great quantities of revealing information to a company that’s already hoarding every emoticon you’ve ever IMed. Even if it were possible to operate the car in some kind of “manual” mode, you would likely still be sending information back to headquarters.

In time, Google will know when you arrive at work each morning, how many times a week you go to Taco Bell, how long you spend at the gym. As illuminating as our searches and other online behavior might be, there’s still some room for ambiguity. Maybe you’re doing all those searches on “brain tumor” because a relative is sick, or you’re doing some sort of report, or you’re simply curious. Combine that info with the fact that you start visiting the hospital every week, however, and Google knows you’ve got cancer.

The driverless car, in short, is a data detective’s dream, a device that can discern when you get a new job, how many one-night stands you have, how often you go to the dentist. As demarcation lines between the real world and the virtual world continue to blur, autonomous cars will function not so much as browsers but links, the way we get from one appointment or transaction opportunity to the next. In theory, Google will determine the route to your desired destination based on distance, available infrastructure, and current traffic conditions. But what if Google, which already filters cyberspace for you, begins choosing routes as a way of putting you in proximity to “relevant content”?

Of course, the cars we are driving today are already collecting a lot of data about us, most of it without our knowledge. If your car has a GPS system, you are constantly in contact with the network of global positioning satellites circling the earth. Many cars now come equipped with rudimentary versions of an airplanes data recorder that can often be accessed to gain information about how the vehicle was being operated immediately prior to a collision. And, of course, many of us travel with smartphones that are loaded with applications that are sharing a data all the time. In the commercial world, many companies equip their vehicles with systems that allow them to track their location, both for safety purposes and to keep an eye on employees who might be slacking on the job or misusing company equipment. The Google driverless car, though, would be a massive step forward in the surveillance state. Granted, the data in question would be gathered by Google rather than by the government, but how long would it be before law enforcement would find a need to access that data, or figure out a way to do it on their own? I don’t know about you, but there’s something slightly disconcerting about the idea that I’d be tracked in this manner as I go about my day. It’s one thing when Google is tracking my web searches in order to serve ads to me, it’s quite another when they’re following my car around and, with just a little work, able to find out intimate details about my life.

This is one reason why I’m skeptical about the idea that the era of the driverless car is going to mean an end to automobiles as we know them today. It’s true that there’s a lot about this technology that people are going to like, and it’s likely to make things like ride-sharing far more convenient than it is today, thus cutting down on traffic in major cities. At the same time, though, there has always been a part of car ownership that has been about an enhanced sense of personal freedom. Being able to get in your car and drive anywhere at anytime without anyone knowing where you’re going or when you’ll be back can be liberating at times, and you’re not really going to be able to do that if Google gets its way because you’ll constantly be attached to the data stream from Google’s omnipresent servers. There’s just something missing there that I’m betting a lot of Americans aren’t going to want to give up. Besides, being able to drive your own car can be fun, it’s something that every teenager looks forward to once they hit 15 or 16 years or age. Simply being a a passenger in a computer-driven car just doesn’t capture that same vibe and just doesn’t seem compatible with the culture that has grown up around the American automobile. It’s going to take a lot more than fancy technology and the promise that you’ll be able to play Angry Birds while driving  being driven to work to convince Americans to give that, and their personal privacy up I think.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Science & Technology, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. grumpy realist says:

    I’ll believe in driverless cars when I see them happen. Me skeptical, very very skeptical

  2. If your car has a GPS system, you are constantly in contact with the network of global positioning satellites circling the earth.

    This is a common misconception about how GPS works. It’s one way broadcast: the satellites send out a stream of signals indicating where the satellites are and what time it is. Your receiver figures out where it is by trangulating from the differing times it gets from different satellites. The receiver itself doesn’t transmit anything back to the satellites, and they have no way of knowing where your receiver is headed or even that it exists.

  3. @Stormy Dragon:

    e.g. if at this exact momment, satellite A says the time is 1023 and satellite B says the time is 1025, you know you must be closer to satellite B because the signal got to you 2 clicks faster than the signal from satellte A did.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    @Stormy Dragon: True. The real privacy “breach” for now is the onboard computers recording your driving habits. Those can be pulled but someone has to have access to your car.

  5. Tyrell says:

    One possible (probable in some states) use of auto-pilot, hands off cars would regulation of where,
    when, how fast, which roads we have to take, and limits on miles driven per month or year.
    I would not want to be driving surrounded by 18 wheelers. dunp trucks, and buses (“take the bus, and leave the polluting to us”) and take my hands off the wheel!!
    One abuse of the on board computer is those annoying and often false engine light codes, which can cause your own car to be held hostage by the vehicle inspection program, which is just another way for the state government to gouge the working people.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Personal privacy? That horse left the barn a while back…

  7. Tyrell says:

    @Ben Wolf: Oh, some of the states are taking car companies to court over this data box. It seems that the state governments and car dealers can access it, but you the person who shelled out all that money for the car aren’t allowed in. If you try, your car will stop and you will have a big repair bill just to get it running.
    Does that big G on Google a symbol for government?

  8. grumpy realist says:

    The amount of electronic ivy around you in order to have true driverless cars makes it unlikely except for high density roads which would need to insist that driver’d cars NOT be on the road.

    Until driverless cars can cope with: a) deer, b) moose, c) suicidal raccoons, d) burning half of tree in road e) dumb bicyclists whizzing out of nowhere f) top half of truck in road g) the other &&^*%!! idiots on the road….


  9. PJ says:

    You’ll lose your personal freedom to drive to work or to the mall.

    Most people aren’t going to drive from New York to California, they will buy an airplane ticket instead.

  10. KariQ says:

    People already sign up for cards at stores that track all their purchase information. They let Facebook know their birth date and track them at every website they visit. They use credit and debit cards that track their purchases. Why would self-driving cars be taking things too far?

  11. JKB says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    I was going to point that misconception out. Because if the GPS sat were tracking you, that would be the government tracking you.

    On the other hand, those “enhanced” features some/most commercial GPS enabled devices have are transmissions, usually terrestrial, and do permit the offering companies to collect data and track.

    But GPS itself is a broadcast system and, while they’ve eased up, it is a military system that can be shut down or encrypted without notice rendering all your GPS reliance null and void. Not to mention that it can be spoofed and otherwise corrupted, mostly locally but if someone big enough wanted to, regionally at least.

  12. JKB says:

    But I thought the consensus here was that human drivers were bad and that driverless cars would be mandated under threat of government violence with the occupant indemnifying Google et al for any bugs in the system that might kill a few dozen people or decide to shut the car down in front of a bus or train.

    Oh, and how long before they decide that to manage traffic and high surge use that Google/government can shut off your car like they want to do with appliances and your electric power?

    But no worries, well except for those low level employees who might abuse their office to harass and intimidate those whose political views they dislike.

  13. steve s says:

    the government is already (though this story only obliquely mentions it) archiving every phone call, email, text, and GPS coordinate, mining it for your links to others, etc. After the Boston bombing the feds went back and read the bomber’s texts–without having his cell phone.

    Bruce Schneier’s security blog is often excellent reading

    Most of Facebook’s billion users are having facial recognition algorithms run on the pics they upload. And according to a security pro I know in Florida, a single experienced person like himself can crack FB in 25ish minutes.

    There was even an article I can’t seem to relocate that said that you can ID most people from as few as 3 GPS coordinates without even using the timestamps.

    Your cell phone is constantly communicating with nearby towers and basically all that data is being logged and stored.

    In short, the google car would take us from our 95% surveillance state, to, say, a 97% surveillance state.

  14. steve s says:

    1,000,000 hospital visits a year are for auto accidents. 40,000 people die in wrecks per year. Not even including people like my granddad who died weeks later partially due to the wreck. Here’s why americans will eventually choose not be even allowed to drive their own cars in non-emergency situations:

    “Hi, thanks for calling State Farm.”
    “I just bought a google car and I want insurance.”
    “Will you be using Auto-drive or driving it yourself?
    “I’m a tea partier who loves the flag and america and hates our illegal darkie president.”
    “So you’ll be driving it yourself then?”
    “Got-damn right.”
    “Okay that’ll be $217 per month.”
    “What in tarnation! What about auto-drive insurance?”
    “$27.50 a month.”
    “Goddam Obama…”

    “Hi, thanks for calling Blue Cross”
    “I want health insurance.”

    (bunch of medical history questions)

    “One last thing–do you use Auto-drive or do you drive it yourself?
    “I’m a tea partier who loves the flag and america and hates our communist marxist muslim affirmative-action president.”
    “So you’ll be driving it yourself then?”
    “Got-damn right.”
    “Okay that family policy will be $1246 per month.”
    “What in hades! What if we used auto-drive?”
    “$712 a month.”
    “Goddam Ni…”

    (Just a fun fact–I work in a hardware store in the southeast and my customers no longer describe what they’re doing as ******-rigging. Now thay call it “Presidential-Engineering. And everyone chuckles.)

  15. anjin-san says:

    We keep talking about driverless cars. Are we ever going to talk about the rave reviews that the new Tesla is getting? I saw one on the road yesterday, it looked pretty bitchin’. No guess we won’t talk about this. Chevron would not like it.

    And the good news keeps coming for Tesla.

    Just a day after the company reported record sales and its first-ever quarterly profit, Consumer Reports announced that the electric vehicle manufacturer’s Model S has received the highest test rating of any car in its 2013 car ratings. And just to put a cherry on top, the notoriously tough Consumer Reports writers say that the $89,650 Tesla Model S comes close to, and just may be, the best car ever.
    “This car performs better than anything we’ve ever tested before,” Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of testing says. “Not just the best electric car, but the best car. It does just about everything really, really well.”

    Conservatives can rest easy. Out here in the People’s Republic, we will continue to innovate and build the future.


    We also won’t talk about the rapidly recovering real estate market. No sir.

  16. Brett says:

    I tend to think the “insurance” issue will push people to keep the car on auto-drive most of the time too. And while some driving is fun, 95% of it is pretty damn tedious repetition. I’d be more than happy to let the car drive the morning commute while I listen to music and read.

  17. murray says:

    Driverless cars have as much chance of threatening our personal privacy as Martians do. And for the same reason.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Granted, the data in question would be gathered by Google rather than by the government, but how long would it be before law enforcement would find a need to access that data,

    Doug, Doug, Doug…. You silly, silly little man. (compared to Google, you aren’t even a fly) Why is it you are so worried about the gov’t getting data, an entity which you at least can influence, but do not worry at all about Google, an entity you have zero influence over, getting this same info? Why, pray tell, do you think Google would never use that info for nefarious deeds?

  19. Stonetools says:

    I predict that driverless cars will be on the road as a consumer product in 2028, so they have 15 years to iron out the problem.
    To answer your question , I think that consumers would trade their privacy for the convenience of not having to drive in a heartbeat. How many of us have “free” Google email and Drive accounts and do Facebook for “free”? I foresee zero pushback against Google about privacy from driverless car patrons.

  20. john personna says:


    2028 is far enough away that I’ll allow they might be somewhere, though certainly not everywhere.

    The old idea before Google made their “trips” was that we’d drive to major highways, and then press a “take over” button. At that point the car would merge into high speed convoys, drafting and creating higher throughput than human drivers. The computer would hand back control as you reached your exit. That still might happen first. It is a lot less complicated a problem, and those robo-roads could be monitored carefully.

  21. Stonetools says:

    @john personna:

    Let me post my predictions again:

    2028. First driverless cars on the road as a luxury consumer product.

    2068. Majority of cars on the road driverless cars.

    2108. ONLY driverless cars on public streets. Cars with human drivers restricted to special driving parks.

  22. john personna says:


    Personal privacy? That horse left the barn a while back…

    I guess the funny thing about the Boomberg scandal is that the Corps are mad it is happening to THEM

    It is totally what they do to everyone else.. I mean, you think Goldman doesn’t have internal data on how little guy trades are trending?

  23. john personna says:


    The Tesla S is pretty crazy. A “green” sedan and zero to sixty in 4.2 seconds.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: @john personna: I did a post on the Tesla Model S a week ago today.

  25. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    Yeah, I too saw a couple of them yesterday. “recentcy” is a powerful thing.

  26. roger says:

    The driverless car will bankrupt the airline industry at some point. I’d much rather “drive” than deal with the airport headaches.

    Can’t wait for the day when I can just plug in the waypoints and go.

  27. anjin-san says:

    @ James Joyner

    Thanks for refreshing my memory, which seems to be overtaxed at the moment.

    I think the Tesla S deserves a lot of attention, it has the potential to be a disruptive/game changing product. Of course as a Democrat, I have to gloat at least a little after all the invective that has been hurled at battery powered cars and government subsidies for them from the right.

  28. steve s says:

    the driverless car will bankrupt the airline industry at some point. I’d much rather “drive” than deal with the airport headaches.

    I can take a flight from JAX to LAX for $181 next tues. The flight has 1 stop, total duration 5 hrs. (add 30 mins for security and maybe some $$$ for a car rental or a taxi).

    According to google maps, driving that route would require 7 stops for gas and 35 hours of driving not counting the stops for gas and 4-5 meals, and put 2500 miles of wear on your car, and the gas would be appx $400.

    Driverless cars will affect the airline industry, but not destroy it.