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Viewpoints: Google's Self-Driving Cars Shouldn't Violate Privacy


What do autonomous cars driven by robots like those Google is developing have to do with your privacy? If the answer is nothing, then why won't Google and the author of a bill to allow them on California highways accept an amendment requiring that the new technology collect only data necessary for the operation of the vehicle and no other purpose?

You may remember the last time Google deployed high-tech vehicles around the world. The result was "Wi-Spy," the biggest wire-tapping scandal in history when the company's Street View cars sucked up data from tens of millions of private Wi-Fi networks, including emails, health information, banking information, passwords and other data.

We don't want that to happen again. If amended, Sen. Alex Padilla's Senate Bill 1298 could offer privacy protection. The Assembly Transportation Committee heard testimony about the bill last week and held it over for action Monday.

Padilla and Google say they will accept an amendment that merely requires the manufacturers of autonomous vehicles to disclose what data they are gathering but won't give users the right to say whether it can be collected or used for other purposes. Why won't Google endorse simple privacy safeguards? There are two reasons.

First, Google's entire business model is based on building digital dossiers about our personal behavior and using them to sell the most personal advertising to us. You're not Google's customer; you are its product – the one it sells to corporations willing to pay any price to reach you. Will the driverless technology be just about getting us from point to point or about tracking how we got there and what we did along the way?

Second, computer engineers, who believe that more data is always better, are in charge at Google. They may not know what they would use data for today, but they think they may someday find a use for it and don't want any restrictions on them now.

Google is first and foremost an advertising company; 98 percent of its $38 billion in revenue last year came from advertising, and the more personalized the marketing, the better.

Indeed, Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has said, "We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."

Citing its "Don't Be Evil" motto, Google claims it can be trusted with our information. Facts show otherwise. Recently the Federal Communications Commission released documents showing the Wi-Spy scandal was not a mistake or the work of one rogue engineer, as the company had claimed, but was part of the Street View design. The commission fined Google $25,000 for obstructing its investigation. And, the Federal Trade Commission is investigating how Google hacked around privacy settings on Apple's Safari browser, which is used on iPads and iPhones. Simply put, there is no reason to trust or believe Google.

Consumers enthusiastically adopted the new technology of the Internet. What we were not told was that our use of the information superhighway would be monitored and tracked in order to personalize corporate marketing and make Google a fortune. Now that Google is taking to the freeways, we must prevent inappropriate collection and storage of data about our personal movements and environment before we allow Google's robots to take to the roads and report back to the Googleplex.

Without appropriate regulations, Google's vehicles will be able to gather unprecedented amounts of information about the use of those vehicles. How will it be used? Just as Google tracks us around the Internet, it will now be looking over our shoulders on every highway and byway. Will the data be provided to insurance companies for underwriting purposes or to third parties that develop some kind of a driving score related to where and when individuals travel? Will it be used to serve in-car advertisements or advertisements through other venues in the Google suite of products? Will it be used to track our movements and those of surrounding cars and mobile devices so that Google's advertisers can better locate us?

Internet technology was implemented with little regard to protecting users' privacy. We are playing catch-up for our failure to consider the societal impact of a new technology. The Federal Trade Commission has called for the implementation of a Do Not Track system that would allow consumers to let websites know that they do not want data about their Web surfing to be gathered.

Driverless technology is not commercially viable yet, but we are certain it will be available sooner than most of us would predict. Padilla's Senate Bill 1298 endorses Google's driverless technology and allows its fleet of robot-driven cars to travel on California's roads. Sadly, the bill provides no real privacy protection for the users of the coming technology. The bill should be amended to ban all personal data collection by autonomous cars.

While we don't propose to limit the ability of the cars to function by communicating as necessary with satellites and other devices, the collection and retention of data for marketing and other purposes should be banned. Unless the bill is amended, once again society will be forced to play catch-up in dealing with the impact of the privacy invading aspects of a new technology.

Google's unwillingness to take such a simple step is proof that the company's goal is not merely a self-driving car, but a vehicle to drive us to its corporate advertisers.

John M. Simpson is director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project. Reach him at

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