Tracking Technology: Your Car Is Definitely Watching You – But That Might Not Be a Bad Thing

tracking technology in car

It sounds like something out of a dystopian thriller – the idea that no matter where you go in your own car, someone could be tracking those movements. But to a large degree, it’s already happening. In fact, it’s commonplace.

5 Ways You’re Being Tracked Right Now

For most people reading this, there’s a good chance that one or more of these technologies is already tracking your movements when you go for a drive.

1. Your New Car

Many vehicles made within the past few years include technology that actively tracks the vehicle’s movements. You may feel like it’s wrong that they could do that without telling you, but they would argue that they do tell you. It’s included somewhere in the pages of paperwork you sign on the day you buy the car, buried in legalese most people don’t bother to read.

Right now, there are 78 million cars on the road that have this kind of tracking technology. And experts expect that within a few years 98% of all new cars sold will include it.

Within a few years nearly all new cars sold will include tracking technology, so make sure you check the fine print at the dealer before driving off.

2. Your Car’s Entertainment System

If you ever hook your smartphone into your car with Bluetooth or a USB connection, your car’s entertainment system can access lots of data saved on your device. According to one investigative report, this includes your phone book, call logs, text messages, pictures, location data – just about everything you can think of.

As of now, there’s not much regulation around how companies can use that data. At least one company, Berla, makes the information available to law enforcement agencies in a number of states (though with a proper court order).

3. Smartphone Apps

Both Android and Apple smartphones have location tracking built in. And for most people, not only does your smartphone track your movements, but you probably have a number of apps that do as well. (You probably see apps ask if they can access your location information all the time. They can only do that because the smartphone is already tracking it.)

4. Telematics Devices

A number of insurance companies offer usage-based insurance programs where you can install a telematics device in your car that tracks your driving habits, ideally to reward you for driving safely and/or minimally. Companies that have these programs are required to disclose just what data they’re looking at, so if you choose to use one, you know what it’s tracking.

The good news about telematics devices is that they’re generally your choice to use.

5. EDR

Event data recorders, sometimes referred to as a car’s “black box” are included in almost every new car. These recorders collect data on your driving behavior in order to record important information during an accident, like the speed the car was going and how fast the airbag was deployed.

The use of EDRs is much more limited than the other technologies on this list. They don’t keep a continual record of your driving habits or transmit that information anywhere. EDRs only become available if someone intentionally accesses the information, like after a crash.

tracking technology smart phones city

The Privacy Risks of Being Tracked

There are some very real issues that can come with that breach of privacy:

  • Law enforcement agencies can use information against you. This is a growing fear many people have, especially as we see news or entertainment showing law enforcement using their power for not-good. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency gets criticism now for using license plate tracking in their attempts to find undocumented immigrants, and the data could potentially be used to track people who participate in protests or other acts of civil disobedience.
  • Private companies could use information to cost you money. Already many companies use data about your behaviors, preferences, and purchasing habits to create more opportunities to sell to you. Data may also reveal changes in the risk you pose, so insurance companies could use it against you. While telematics programs claim to be about helping participants save money, at least one (from Progressive) has started to charge drivers for unsafe driving behaviors. If usage-based insurance programs cease to be optional in the future, your driving choices could end up costing you more whether you agree to be tracked or not.
  • Individuals could use it to track your movements. If a hacker or other malicious person can access systems which track your movements, your privacy and safety are obviously at serious risk.

How do you opt out?

Unfortunately, you can’t opt out completely of every type of location tracking explored above, but you do have some options to reduce how much you’re being tracked.

To start, you can turn off the tracking on your smartphone.

  • For an iPhone, look for the Privacy section under settings. Location services is right at the top and you can either turn it off across the board, or review all the apps using it and selectively choose which to remove permissions from.
  • For Android, you can turn off location tracking by choosing Settings while in Google Maps. From there, choose Google Location settings, then Google Location Reporting, and select off.

For cars, the best you can do is read the information provided before you buy. Most new cars will have some type of location tracking technology included, but they have to provide you information on it upfront, you just have to actually read that stack of paperwork they give you to learn the details.

And you can choose not to hook your smartphone up to your entertainment system to avoid letting your car in on all of that data as well.

tracking technology good or bad

But Wait! 4 Ways Location Tracking is Actually Beneficial to You

Here’s the deal though, giving up privacy is a tradeoff. If you do opt out of these features, you’re giving up a certain amount of convenience and safety. Keeping location tracking live in your car and on various devices:

  1. Makes you easier to find in an emergency  Right now, 911 isn’t good at tracking people in need, but you can use an app like RapidSOS to alert emergency services to your location based on smartphone data. But the app requires your phone’s location tracking to work.
  2. Provides data that improves safety features and city planning – The data from your car and a lot of these apps can help companies better understand trends in how people drive and why accidents happen. That can help them design safer cars, safer cities, and figure out ways to reduce traffic and other annoyances of daily life.
  3. Enables a lot of apps that make life more convenient – If you want to use Uber and Lyft, you have to leave location tracking on. If you want Yelp to show you the closest coffee shop or Gas Buddy to help you find cheap gas nearby, same thing. Keeping your privacy means giving up that convenience.
  4. Makes you an informed consumer – Taking usage-based insurance or telematics programs as an example, you can use the insights derived from your driving behavior data to make smarter and safer decisions about how, when, and where you drive, which not only could save you money – it could help you prevent accidents, vehicle theft, or other dangerous situations.

For many consumers, the convenience and safety is worth the loss of privacy or there wouldn’t be so many popular apps that require this technology. If you find it scarier than helpful though, be thoughtful about privacy issues when buying your next car and as you use your smartphone each day.