Which is worse: an e-car sending data to a government, or a phone leaking data to the internet?

Shanghai traffic. Photo by Denys Nevozhai.
Photo by Denys Nevozhai.

Automakers have been open about data collection from electric vehicles. The engine, battery and other components in e-cars are controlled by on-board computers. Vehicles automatically transmit some of this information back to manufacturers. In China, however, the government requires that automakers must pass on all this data to dedicated data collection centers.

AP reported about a large office in Shanghai, The Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center, whose job is to collect the data from all electric vehicles moving on the streets in the region and produce meaningful statistics out of it.

If a car manufacturer wants to sell e-cars in China, it has to send 61 data points, including vehicle’s live location and details about battery and engine to local government data centers.

More than 200 automakers, including Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Ford, Nissan, Mitsubishi, General Motors, and Tesla are relaying vehicle data to Chinese monitoring centers. Even though electric car owners should be aware of the data collection conducted by the manufacturer of their car, in China, the government data collection is performed without car owners’ knowledge. There is no way to opt-out, either.

Renowned security expert Bruce Schneier famously tried to buy a car in the US without internet connection recently, but failed. He had to order a vehicle that connects to the cloud and transmits data to the manufacturer.

Chinese officials claim the data collected from vehicles is for public safety, industrial development and infrastructure planning. The chief of Shanghai data collection office could think of two other uses for the data: police may ask for information on a specific vehicle, and selling the data to other parties. The chief said they have already explored the possibilities of marketing the data, but haven’t done it yet.

The way automakers and the Chinese government trade the data has similarities with how Google, Facebook, and other companies trade smartphone users’ private data to other companies (and possibly to governments).

Internet companies that make their money on user data inform phone owners of some of this data collection and provide means to restrict it, but they collect much more data in the background without users’ knowledge. There is no way to completely opt-out of this hidden data collection.

As Facebook has proved many times, the company acts against its own policies. Recently, Facebook was caught selling users’ private data and secret messages to other large internet companies, like Microsoft, Yahoo and Netflix.

How to prevent data collection by electric vehicles and smartphones?

Very few people are willing to give up their phone to protect their private life, but there are other means to avoid phone tracking. An open source software known as /e/ (or eelo) and Purism smartphone are built without components from Google, Facebook, or other companies that collect private data.

Electric cars are a different story. Whereas it is difficult and troublesome to replace the operating system of a smartphone, hacking the computers and software of an e-car is risky and nearly impossible (if you don’t have inside information and tools from the manufacturer). It is the government of each country where electric vehicles are marketed who must decide what is allowed for automakers and what is forbidden from them.

A phone is such a personal product that it knows almost everything about its owner once the collected data is cross-referenced and analysed. The product follows its owner everywhere. It knows its owner’s thoughts, desires, plans, and history.

Electric vehicles only know where they have been, when and how fast they have traveled. The driver can park the car in front of a pet shop, but enter a bar. The vehicle won’t be aware of it, like the phone will.

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