How much does your car know about you?

21st Sep, 2020

The biggest price of living in today’s digitised world is that our devices probably know more about us than we’d like. Our computers, phones and even our home voice assistants like Alexa and Siri are all constantly analysing where we’ve been, what we do and who we talk to. You know that already – but we bet you didn’t think the same of your car.

Modern cars are far more than four wheels and an engine. These days they’re also computers filled with data, just like your phone and computer. Satellite navigation and ‘infotainment’ systems are becoming standard inclusions on commuter cars, and every time you use them, they’re collecting information about your possessions, preferences and behaviour.

So that begs some very concerning questions. For starters, how much does your vehicle know about you? And also, what happens to that information when you sell it on or scrap your car?

How do cars collect information?

Cars collect information about their drivers in a couple of different ways, and some are more obvious than others. For example, depending on when you passed your test, you might have already driven with a black box. Some insurers make their coverage conditional on driving with one of these devices, normally for about a year or so.

What it basically does is record the standard of your driving, making note of any hard accelerations or sudden braking, and feeds back to your insurer accordingly. Depending on how risky they judge your driving to be, they may sometimes choose to raise or lower your premiums accordingly. That’s a fairly obvious one though, and in fact arguably its intrusiveness is part of the point.

Satellite navigation systems tend to be far more underestimated in terms of the data they collect about you. Whenever you put a destination into your sat nav, your car remembers that information. Over time, that means it can build up a fairly accurate map of not only where you live, but also where you work, and where your friends and family are based too.

Of course, that data becomes even more detailed and accurate if you choose to make that classic trade-off between convenience and privacy by pairing your phone to your car, whether that’s by using Bluetooth, USB, or Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, or any of a whole host of similar systems. It’s an attractive prospect because of the whole new world of cool gadgetry and connectivity it provides. You can play your own music, download your contacts and messages, receive live traffic and navigation information, and make hands-free calls or messages.

But that means your car gets the benefit of all that data too. In an instant it can know where you live, where you work, who you know, and even what you’re saying to them. Now, you might not mind that, and that’s fine. But if you don’t scrub your data before it comes to selling your vehicle, the next buyer could have access to all that information as well.

Using black box data to make cars safer

The dangers of leaving personal data in your car

Here’s a bit of a scary stat for you. Between December 2019 and February 2020, consumer group Which surveyed just over 14,000 people who sold their car in the past two years. The vast majority – 80%, in fact – hadn’t followed the instructions in the car’s manual to erase the data before selling it on. What’s more, nearly a third made zero attempts to remove any of the data from their car.

That can have some serious consequences for buyers and sellers alike. If you’re the seller, you’re not going to want all your personal data available for the new buyer to potentially peruse at their leisure. And if you’re the buyer, the repercussions can be even scarier.

See, as cars get more sophisticated, more and more of their features can be activated remotely through the use of official apps. Normally sellers will delete the app when they sell their car, but it’s a bit risky to take that on faith.

If you’ve just bought a car, and its previous owner failed to break the link between their car and the app, that might give them direct access to (or even control over) all sorts of information and functions. They could view the status of your vehicle, including where it is, and how much fuel is in it. They could also track it on the move. They could also activate or deactivate its lights or horn, or open or close its windows, unlock the doors, or even start the engine. None of which are terribly appealing prospects!

Thankfully, instances of this are rare, but not entirely theoretical – a man in Australia has already been convicted of using the technology in this way to stalk his ex-girlfriend. What’s more, these dangers are only compounded as cars evolve into ever more advanced machines. Ask any tech expert – the more sophisticated a certain technology gets, the more potential there is for vulnerabilities.

Think about self driving cars, for example. Could someone remotely increase your speed? Cause your brakes to slam on? Hijack your destination when you’re halfway there? Perhaps it’s possible… although as you’d expect, the designers of autonomous vehicles have thought of all that already, and are already busy creating safeguards against it.

We realise it might all sound like the plot of a bad thriller film (or a good one – ever seen Speed?). And let’s be honest, however real these dangers are, the chances of someone following through on them are vanishingly rare. But the fact remains that they could, and that alone should be enough to exercise decent data hygiene when it comes to your car.

Happily, it’s not too tricky to remove personal data from your car, whether you’re planning on selling it soon, or if the mood just strikes you. The car’s manual will tell you exactly how to do it, and some may even be available online.

You might not see it as strictly necessary when you come to scrap your car, but it’s not a bad idea to do it regardless! It’s one of the few to-do jobs you’ll have – we like to make everything else as simple and easy for you as we can. All you need to do is enter your car reg and postcode into the fields on our site, and you’ll have your instant online quote in less time than it takes to say scrap my car. Talk about saving yourself some hassle!

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