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Big Brother IS watching you - time to get on your bike!

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

A caveat: if you use Google as your default search engine and click "I accept" on every website that asks you to accepts its cookies, save the five minutes it will take you to read this blog post and do something else. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to personal data!

Today is World Car Free Day. Certain councils in the UK have actively embraced this initiative but in Northern Ireland this is being completely ignored. My council for 31 years is actively supporting Active Travel by waiving administrative charges for road closures on this occasion, while the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure in its infinite wisdom drags its heels when it comes to enabling Ards and North Down Borough Council to be a "cycle-friendly borough", refusing to let ANDBC trial a car-free day in Bangor and stating that this must be organised by them and in any case, it would be difficult do operate on a local level. How do you know if you don't try?




I have a confession to make: I am a petrolhead. I love driving (outside of London...) but the car industry is going in a direction where it lost me about five years ago. Specifically, I am talking about in-car connectivity.

I don't care whether my car will read my emails or inane social media posts to me while I'm driving. I don't even use voice command to make phone calls while driving (I like a bit of peace and quiet while on the road). Cars these days have more computing power than Apollo 11. They can be updated over the air. A subscription service for certain features sounds terrific, but is it really? Not if you buy a new BMW and find out later that you have to pay an annual subscription to have working heated seats. Your shiny new BMW comes with heated seats as standard, but unless you subscribe to them, you'll drive around with a cold bum come December unless you pay up. In other words, there is a dark side to all that technological progress which I suspect is overlooked by most drivers. And I am not talking about the fake oversized iPads that are splattered around car dashboards these days. Let me elaborate.

Last week I came across a report by the Mozilla Foundation who had surveyed the car industry's collection of private driver data, coming to the conclusion that "cars are the worst [product] category we have ever reviewed for privacy". To summarise, 25 major car brands collect and share deeply personal data, including sexual activity, facial expressions, and genetic and health information. You read that correctly: sexual activity... WTF, Nissan? The bottom line is that every car brand collects a lot more driver data than necessary to ensure the functioning of the car.

But it gets worse: 8 out of 10 manufacturers not only sell your personal data (which they collected from you free of charge), 56% will provide personal information relating to a driver to government or law enforcement agencies in response to an "informal request" - no court order needed. Your car records not only where you drive but also how you drive via telematics. 10 years ago black boxes were used to offer young new drivers insurance discounts provided they drove safely. These days, they are no longer needed as your car will store the way it was driven even without a black box. It probably won't be long before car companies and insurance companies exchange driver data behind your back to enable insurance companies to fine-tune their renewal premia.

What happens if you say "no" to your car collecting data? While Tesla claims it is not selling drivers' data, its privacy notice states "if you no longer wish for us to collect vehicle data or any other data from your Tesla vehicle, please contact us to deactivate connectivity. Please note, certain advanced features such as over-the-air updates, remote services, and interactivity with mobile applications and in-car features such as location search, Internet radio, voice commands, and web browser functionality rely on such connectivity. If you choose to opt out of vehicle data collection [...], this may result in your vehicle suffering from reduced functionality, serious damage, or inoperability." In short, "cut us off and you'll be walking".

In Europe we have GDPR (Regulation (EU) 2016/679) aka General Data Protection Regulation. That should make one hope that cars sold in Europe would be configured differently than US-spec cars. Given that this would entail major software coding changes, I for one will assume that this is not the case until actually confirmed by the European Data Protection Supervisor. Oh, and post-Brexit, you can safely assume that your new UK-spec car will comply only with lax US privacy standards.

Having said that, I should point out that Renault/Dacia are the only company to allow drivers to delete their personal data. Well done!

Who are the biggest personal data offenders? Tesla is at the top of the list, followed by Nissan in the number 2 spot, admitting that it shares and sells "Inferences drawn from any Personal Data collected to create a profile about a consumer reflecting the consumer’s preferences, characteristics, psychological trends, predispositions, behavior, attitudes, intelligence, abilities, and aptitudes" to others for targeted marketing purposes. Creepy, or what? Then follow Volkswagen and its sub-brands. Toyota holds the record with 12 separate privacy documents. Kia, like Nissan, admits that it might collect information about your sex life.

Why do the manufacturers do this? Money of course. Apparently these data could be worth $750 billion globally by 2030. Wow - that's a lot of more or less free dough for automakers!

So what can we do about this personal data grab?

  1. Drive a car that's older than eight years.

  2. If that's not an option, decline data collection. If your car stops working, return it to the dealer as "not fit for purpose".

  3. Get on your bike, not just on Friday, September 22 aka World Car Free Day. Your bike won't have a built-in internet connection. Nobody will be able to track your personal data.

  4. In general, be more concious with the personal data you share. Use a different browser (DuckDuckGo or Mozilla), check and deny the tracking requests and permissions you grant to apps on your smart phone and don't let every website you visit track your journey across the internet by clicking "I accept" everytime a cookie window pops up.

Not that we have anything to hide, but we should not make it too easy for Big Brother/Big Tech to build a picture of us. All these free apps on our smart phones aren't so free: they collect a huge amount of personal data which is worth billions - $750 billion in the case of the automotive industry alone.

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