How Self-Driving Cars Will Threaten Privacy

Allow me to join you, if I may, on your morning commute sometime in the indeterminate future.

This the story:

Here we are, stepping off the curb and into the backseat of a vehicle. As you close the car door behind you, the address of your office—our destination—automatically appears on a screen embedded in the back of a leather panel in front of you. “Good morning,” says the car’s humanoid voice, greeting you by name before turning on NPR for you like it does each day.

You decide you’d like a cup of coffee, and you tell the vehicle so. “Peet’s coffee, half-a-mile away,” it confirms. Peet’s, as it turns out, is a few doors down from Suds Cleaners. The car suggests you pick up your dry cleaning while you’re in the neighborhood. “After work instead,” you say. The car tweaks your evening travel itinerary accordingly.

How Self-Driving Cars Will Threaten Privacy
Image: U.S. DOT

As we run into Peet’s to grab coffee, the car circles the block. Then, we’re back in the vehicle, en route to your office once again. There’s a lunch special coming up at the vegetarian place you like, the car tells you as we pass the restaurant. With your approval, it makes a reservation for Friday. We ride by a grocery store and a list of sale items appears on the screen. With a few taps, you’ve added them to your existing grocery list. The car is scheduled to pick up and deliver your order this evening.

We’re less than a mile from your office now. Just like every morning, your schedule for the morning—a conference call at 10 a.m., a meeting at 11 a.m.—appears on the screen, along with a reminder that today is a colleague’s birthday.This is the age of self-driving cars, an era when much of the minutiae of daily life is relegated to a machine. Your commute was pleasant, relaxing, and efficient. Along with promising unprecedented safety on public roadways, driverless cars could make our lives a lot easier—freeing up people’s time and attention to focus on other matters while they’re moving from one place to the next.But there’s a darker side to all this, too. Let’s rewind and take a closer look at your commute for a minute.There we were. The car picked us up. We wanted coffee. It suggested Peet’s. But if we’d stopped to look at the map on the screen when this happened, we might have noticed that Peet’s wasn’t actually the most efficient place to stop, nor was it on your list of preferred coffee shops, which the car’s machine-learning algorithm developed over time. Peet’s was, instead, a sponsored destination—not unlike a sponsored search result on Google. The car went ever-so-slightly out of the way to take you there.Same goes for your dry cleaner’s. The only reason you dropped off your clothes there in the first place was that the car suggested it. And the car suggested it because Suds paid Google, the maker of the self-driving car, to be a featured dry-cleaning destination in your area.

As for the lunch special, that really is a favorite restaurant of yours—but the car has never driven you there before. It knows your preferences because the vehicle has combed through your emails, identified key words, and assessed related messages for emotional tone. Similarly, the car knew which sale items to show you from the grocery store because it reviewed your past shopping activity. Plus, there was that one time you told a friend who was sitting in the car with you how much you liked a particular beer you’d tried the night before. The car heard your conversation, picked up on brand keywords, and knew to suggest the same beer for your shopping list when it went on sale.

In this near-future filled with self-driving cars, the price of convenience is surveillance.

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