Car gadgets threaten drivers' privacy

Insurance company devices and GPS systems are intruding on drivers' rights

For many drivers, the cockpit of their car is a sanctum sanctorum, a place where privacy is sacrosanct. That's becoming less so, however, as high-tech gadgets are introduced to find out what you're doing behind the wheel.

For instance, American Family Insurance in Madison, Wis., has a voluntary program that monitors the activity inside a car through a video camera, with audio, located in the rearview mirror. The program is designed to improve the driving habits of teenagers, but anyone in the driver's seat is fair game for the camera.

The system reacts to erratic driving behavior. So if a driver slams on the brakes, swerves abruptly or hits something, a 20-second video clip is sent to analysts at the insurance company then forwarded to the household, where the family can review it and discuss how to avoid a reprise of the action in the future.

Another voluntary program with intrusive potential is offered by Seattle-based Safeco. Called Teensurance, it, too, ostensibly targets teenagers. Under the program, a GPS tracking device is installed in a car that allows it to be tracked online in real time. If a teenager has their own car, the program could be seen as a form of parental control, but if the youth's car is also the family car, then the program can be much more intrusive than intended, especially since the program also allows speed alerts, driving curfews and safe driving zones to be set for the vehicle.

Taking a page out of the airline industry's handbook, Progressive Insurance in Mayfield Village, Ohio, has a voluntary program that places "black boxes" in cars to monitor driver behavior. Although the boxes don't monitor location, they will reveal to the insurer how many miles a car is driven and its acceleration and braking history. The carrot for participating in the program is lower premiums; the stick, a surcharge for unsafe driving.

Insurance companies aren't the only parties cooking up ways to invade a driver's privacy. Garmin, for instance, introduced a "personal tracking unit" at this year's CES. After turning on the Garmin GTU 10, its location can be tracked by cellphone, computer or another Garmin device. It could be tossed in the trunk of a car, for instance, and used to track the vehicle's movements.

Tags Tracking / antitrackingconsumer electronicsUtilitiestrackingGPSsoftware

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John P. Mello Jr.

PC World (US online)

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