How Your New Car Tracks You

US-based automotive firm Privacy4Cars has released a new tool called the Vehicle Privacy Report, which reveals the extent of data tracking in your new car.

YOUR CAR KNOWS a lot about you. Over the past decade, vehicles have become increasingly connected and their ability to record data about us has shot up. Cars can track where you’re traveling to and from, record every press on the accelerator as well as your seatbelt settings, and gather biometric information about you. Some of this data is sold by the murky data-broker industry.

In May, US-based automotive firm Privacy4Cars released a new tool, dubbed the Vehicle Privacy Report, that reveals how much information on your car can be hoovered up. Much like Apple and Google’s privacy labels for apps—which show how Facebook might use your camera, or how Uber might use your location data—the tool indicates what vehicle manufacturers can know.

Using industry sales data, WIRED ran 10 of the most popular cars in the US through the privacy tool to see just how much information they can collect. Spoiler: It’s a lot. The analysis follows previous reporting on the amount of data modern cars can collect and share—with estimates saying cars can produce 25 gigabytes of data per hour.

Andrea Amico, the founder of Privacy4Cars, says people understand very little about what data their cars can collect as there is little education and “the level of detail and transparency varies” across manufacturers. His tool ranks most modern vehicles as “smartphones on wheels,” as they’re able to collect heaps of data and wirelessly send that information to manufacturers.

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The Vehicle Privacy Report creates privacy labels under two broad categories: what a manufacturer collects (including identifiers, biometrics, location, data from synced phones, and user profiles) and whom a manufacturer sells or shares data with (affiliates, service providers, insurance firms, government, and data brokers). For the vast majority of cars and trucks released in the past few years, it’s likely that most types of data are collected.

The tool works by using your car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, and also analyzes each manufacturer’s public policy documents. We gathered publicly available VINs for a selection of vehicles produced in 2022—from Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevrolet, Ram, and Jeep—and ran them through the tool, also comparing the results with the original documents. The results only apply to the US, as different laws apply in other countries.

The documents can include privacy statements, terms of service, and connected vehicle policies. Recent models from a manufacturer often gather the same data as other cars in the manufacturer’s lineup, as they are governed by the same policies. Generally, all manufacturers will provide data to the government or law enforcement when it has a legal request to do so.

These lengthy documents are often technical legal files, which can be difficult to understand, but also can contain nuances. They also explain why data is collected; some may be gathered for research or product development, while other information could be used for personalizing marketing. For instance, you need to provide your location data for mapping and satellite navigation services to work. And not all data a privacy policy says is collected may be gathered by default—certain settings may need to be turned on by the driver, for instance—and in some cases, it is possible to opt out of information being collected.

In a significant development, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment signed a $5.6 billion deal with a Shanghai-based electric vehicle company to develop EVs (Electric Vehicles).

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