Your Car Is Spying on You

But motorists are finding ways to sidestep Big Brother.


If you've searched online about buying a car, you know you're in for a wave of aggressive come-ons and sales pitches. But I found a way to make car sellers clam up: All you have to do is start asking questions about the increasingly intrusive "nanny" nature of automobiles.

"This is more of an industry question," a Ford representative told me. "You may wish to follow up with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation on this topic."

Like automakers, the Alliance, a trade group, ignored me. But I'm not alone in my concerns.

"Ah, the wind in your hair, the open road ahead, and not a care in the world….except all the trackers, cameras, microphones, and sensors capturing your every move," the Mozilla Foundation warned in a report published in September.

With today's computerized vehicles, "whenever you interact with your car you create a tiny record of what you just did," the report authors added. Because many are wirelessly connected to manufacturers, "usually all that information is collected and stored by the car company."

That report prompted Sen. Ed Markey (D–Mass.) to follow up with a letter urging that "cars should not—and cannot—become yet another venue where privacy takes a backseat."

That's nice, but it ignores the government's own role in turning vehicles into tools of control.

The massive infrastructure bill that became law in 2021 contained a mandate for technology that can "passively and accurately detect whether the blood alcohol concentration of a driver" exceeds the legal limit. If it does, it is supposed to "prevent or limit motor vehicle operation."

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) thinks this is a swell idea and endorsed it in 2022.

We'll be required to pay for that nanny technology, of course, whether or not it works as advertised. My guess is that automated DUI sensors monitoring people of varying mass and metabolism will be slightly less reliable than the seat belt interlocks that were briefly mandatory in the 1970s. Those prevented ignition unless passengers buckled in.

"The result was that grandmas, grocery bags and guard dogs alike triggered the no-start unless the belts for the front seats they occupied were fastened first," Mike Davis, who generally approved of nanny mandates, wrote for The Detroit Bureau in 2009.

Memories of my father getting pointers on disabling the interlock came back to me as I shopped for a new pickup truck and found that most of them remain in near-constant contact with automakers. Through the cell network, they receive software updates and hand off data about drivers. That information is used internally, sold to third parties, and surrendered to government agencies.

"There are so many ways for the law enforcement to unlock the treasure trove of data that's collected by your car," the Mozilla report added. "In the United States, they can just ask for it (without a warrant) or hack into your car to get it."

Like many people, I don't want my vehicle tattling on me to the mothership. If you investigate ways to make sure your car reports only to you, you quickly find a subculture of DIY types hacking their purchases to keep Big Brother out of morning commutes.

"My GTI and my wife's new Toyota had the ability to collect data and transmit it over cellular or wifi," I found posted in one forum. "I disabled it in both cars by disconnecting the antenna connections at the telematics module, it leaves the car unable to communicate, as if it's out in the middle of nowhere."

Disabling snoopy tech is an at-your-own-risk venture. You should assume the warranty goes out the window.

Modifications to make vehicles less intrusive weren't what automakers and bureaucrats intended. But unintended consequences come with the territory. The national preference for SUVs and trucks over old-school sedans, for example, is largely a result of government fuel-efficiency standards that create weird incentives. Tweaking the regulations in 2010 made the problem worse. "Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards create a financial incentive for auto companies to make bigger vehicles that are allowed to meet lower targets," a University of Michigan study found in 2011.

The latest stroke of genius from the NTSB is to propose requiring technologies that "warn a driver when the vehicle exceeds the speed limit" and may even "electronically limit the speed of the vehicle to fully prevent drivers from exceeding the speed limit."

Because why would a driver want the freedom to respond to specific driving conditions?

I predict more DIY modifications in the future—and more unanswered questions about what is being done to our vehicles.