The Government Wants to Know Where, When, and How Fast You’re Driving

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Futurists everywhere are touting the glory of the self-driving car. Google has been developing their version of the technology for several years now, and the results look promising. We could be headed for an era where everyone is a passenger, free to read, work, or simply nap while the car uses its internal systems to get where it’s going. Some see this as a utopia, others as a nightmare-in-the-making, but it’s only now that privacy concerns are starting to rise to the surface.

These concerns start with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s newest publication. It notifies readers of proposed rulemaking in the coming years intended to foster “vehicle-to-vehicle” communication. The NHTSA wants each vehicle to come equipped with communication transmitters that broadcast GPS information like location and speed. This information, the administration contends, is essential if we’re going to move towards greater automation in the future. While that’s undoubtedly true, it brings up the obvious question – who will have access to the broadcasted information?

Anticipating the concern, the safety board has gotten out in front of the question, assuring Americans that they would move forward with the utmost respect for driver privacy. The problem, of course, is that in this age of NSA revelations and Wikileaks, no one believes the federal government when they promise to keep privacy private.

If we look forward to an age where cars are trusted to drive themselves – a future the NHTSA acknowledges in their publication – our concerns go beyond simple broadcasted information. Once humans are no longer in full control of their own vehicles, as CNS News astutely points out, the question becomes, “Who is?”

Putting that frightening concern aside for a moment, the notion of our cars sending sensitive information into the ether is disturbing enough on its own. Could this info be broadcast to local police units, triggering a speeding ticket when the speedometer edges past the legal limit? The government has managed to push through all kinds of dubious legislation with a simple psychological trick: If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. It would not be shocking to see them do the same with vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

Concerns about how technology will be used can’t be used as an excuse to remain stubbornly fixed in the past, but ethical conversations should always accompany the arrival of new possibilities. If the ultimate point of better technology is to improve the way humans live their lives, we should be vigilant in making sure that it does just that. When it comes into conflict with our Constitutional rights, our ethical obligations, or common sense, we need to have the backbone to say no.

Not even the most astute prognosticator can predict what the future will look like, but we can carry lessons from history forward with us into the brave new world. And if there’s one lesson we’ve learned again and again, it’s that the government cannot be trusted to do the right thing. It’s for that reason that proposals to make new technology mandatory should be regarded with skepticism and suspicion. Politicians will always twist a thing like this to suit their needs. It’s up to us to call them out when they do.