It turns out that the “Internet of Things” is full of automated snoops and spies. Data collection, now integrated into new car designs, is more pervasive than ever and is ushering in a brave new world of surveillance and corporate collusion.

The interior of the General Motors Cadillac during an event in New York on March 27, 2018. (Michael Noble Jr / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Just in case you thought the capitalist surveillance network foisted on us by bandit corporations and complicit governments wasn’t dystopian enough, your car may now be spying on you — and selling the data it collects to insurance companies via LexisNexis.

Last week, the New York Times and others reported that certain General Motors (GM) vehicles were collecting driver data — in some cases unbeknownst to the owner — that insurance companies could, and did, use to adjust (that is, raise) premiums. GM’s Smart Driver program isn’t the only one of its kind. Other automakers have similar services, which may seem innocuous (in-car Wi-Fi, amazing!), but is in fact insidious, since you end up “consenting” to being spied on for automaker profit.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s Snooping Widget

In 2023, the Mozilla Foundation released research in which they said cars were a “privacy nightmare on wheels” and “the official worst category of products for privacy.” Writing in The Conversation, law professor Katharine Kemp detailed the extensive data collection mechanisms in vehicles, including “cameras, microphones, sensors and connected phones and apps.” She underscored the real-time nature of data collection and its potential integration with other sources, such as other internet-connected products.

Kemp offered a laundry list of just how your car spies on you and what it collects. It includes “speed, steering, brake and accelerator pedal use, seat belt use, infotainment settings, phone contacts, navigation destinations, voice data, your location and surroundings, and even footage of you and your family outside your car.” She also pointed out that “Between 2019 and 2022, Tesla employees internally circulated intimate footage collected from people’s private cars for their own amusement, according to reports.”

Corporate consumer data collection isn’t new, nor is the practice of adjusting insurance premiums based on driver behavior. But extending and scaling up the practice with the power of big data and hiding it — intentionally or otherwise — behind what companies must surely know is a human tendency not to dive into arcane terms of service legalese is a bold new step toward a sci-fi surveillance hellscape. It’s of a piece with all the other tech developments over which there is no public oversight. And it’s another sign that we’re entering a more dangerous kind of capitalist dystopia from which we can’t escape without collective pressure and state action.

Brave New Panopticons

We are increasingly encircled by products that treat us as myriad data points to be collected in the name of profit as we are surveilled in public and in private. Cars spying on us is merely the latest in a long line of products that serve their corporate creators rather than their consumers.

Last year, Amazon settled cases relating to abuses of its Ring doorbell and Alexa, including violating the privacy rights of children by holding on to recordings and allowing employees open access to doorbell video footage, which led to spying on customers. Up until this year, Ring also let police access consumer doorbell footage, including instances in which owners didn’t give permission.

Beyond companies spying or sharing your data with the state, there’s also a risk of data leaks. In the fall of 2023, a 23andMe leak led to the genetic information of fourteen million people being exposed. “The apparent hacker posted in an online forum . . . offering to sell the names, locations and ethnicities of what could be millions of 23andMe users, calling out Jewish people specifically.” The list of major corporate data breaches is long and includes Adobe, Air Canada, Apple, Blizzard, CVS, Equifax, Facebook, Google, LexisNexis, Microsoft, Sony, TikTok, Twitch, Twitter, and Yahoo.

Capitalism’s inclination toward monopoly converges with data collection to form a particularly bleak reality. In the economic system of “choice,” several markets in the United States and Canada are dominated by a handful of companies, most of whom are utter data vacuums.

Grocers, airlines, telecoms, banks, automakers, and big tech firms squeeze competitors and leave consumers and users with limited choice, forcing them to accept high prices, bad service, and totally unreasonable data collection practices. Insofar as these corporate behemoths collude — or “coordinate” — to set standards, people are left with nowhere to turn.

A Stick in Big Brother’s Eye

Despite the ubiquity of data collection and its abuse in the name of making the rich richer, news that your car may be spying on you to further enrich automakers and insurance companies still ought to shock us. We shouldn’t become numb to this reality, nor should we accept it. Automakers are counting on people not noticing what data is collected from drivers and how that data is used. That’s the playbook across industries.

It’s well established that companies collect too much data and routinely fail to keep it safe. It’s also well established that consumers or users are quick to give away their data, to accept the terms of service, to click a box and move on with their day. But the problem isn’t with individuals, it’s with companies. In a marketplace in which the choice to opt out is rarely a choice at all, particularly in a monopoly or oligopoly situation, what are people to do?

For one, we need to accept that, ultimately, we need governments to set better standards and punishments. Furthermore, we need to demand, as a rule, that companies collect less data, are limited in or prohibited from sharing it, and must state expressly and in simple terms what’s being collected and how it’s being used. Abuses of data collection should put companies into the ground and ought to carry hefty liability for executives and owners, including potential criminal penalties in extreme cases of negligence or deceit.

Living in a capitalist surveillance dystopia isn’t inevitable. It’s our current reality, but we have agency. We can demand a change, fight for it, and dismantle the network through state action. We need not cede every last inch and moment of our lives to companies who turn our data into a commodity and use it to control and exploit us. We can retake our lives and our privacy, even as these ghoulish voyeurs watch us do it.

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