When Your Car Spies on You

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By Lori Andrews

Cars are getting smarter.  Some can show you a video of what is behind you to help you park in a tight spot.  Others can automatically apply the brakes if you are about to run into the car in front of you.

Now cars have a new power.  They can snitch to an insurance company about your driving.   A tracking device can be installed in your car to monitor how and when and how far you drive.  Progressive and other insurers offer discounts on car insurance to drivers based on data from such devices.

Do you accelerate sharply, corner too closely, travel at night or drive great distances?   Those traits can be used against you and prevent you from getting a discount.  But many of those factors are beyond your control.  If your job requires you to work in the evening, why should you be penalized by your insurer?

Most insurers’ devices are installed in the data port of car, under the drivers’ side of the dashboard, which limits their use to cars sold after 1998.  But the Canadian insurer Desjardins uses a mobile phone app, Ajusto, that doesn’t even need to be installed in the car.  But phone apps raise additional issues.  Nothing prevents an insurer from matching data from the phone driving app with other information.  Nearly two-thirds of smartphone owners look up health information on their devices.  What if you’ve done a Google search for the side effects of an allergy medication?  The insurer might take that to mean you are using the medication while driving, despite the drug’s warnings about drowsiness.

Who else will ultimately get the driving information?   Will the police want to know who is driving faster than the speed limit?   As a phone app, Ajusto can tap into location information.  Will spouses and employers want to know where the driver has been?  Already, information from toll passes has been used as evidence in criminal cases and divorce cases.  If you get into an accident while using Progressive’s Snapshot device, Progressive will turn over their information about your driving style and history to the court.

These programs to reward safe drivers might actually lead to more accidents.  A friend who used the Progressive device heard a series of beeps from his car if he braked too quickly.  The only way to avoid the beeps was to stay four car lengths behind the car in front of him, but that meant other cars were constantly swerving in front of him.  It also greatly increased the chance of his being rear-ended.

The tracking devices for cars are touted as a way to save you money.  But the data they collect can be used against you.  Progressive announced that it will start charging higher rates to drivers who volunteer to use its Snapshot device, but whose driving does not measure up.  Courts can order that you turn over your driving information to someone who sues you.   Tracking devices have real risks. What you might save in premiums, you’ll lose in privacy.

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