TECH

We Need To Protect Drivers' Privacy As We Connect Cars To The Internet, Sen. Blumenthal Says

Whether consumers choose privacy over convenience is one of the "central questions of our time."

Connecting a car to the Internet raises different concerns than putting sensors, appliances, parking meters or thermostats online. That's why Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced the Security and Privacy in Your Car Act on Tuesday. If passed into law, the bill would require automobile manufacturers to build minimum information technology and privacy standards into connected cars.

Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- the federal agency that's principally charged with regulating vehicle safety -- told an industry conference in Michigan he supports self-driving cars, but stressed that privacy and security must be priorities in those vehicles to reassure consumers that they will be safe in them. 

The Huffington Post spoke with Blumenthal on Tuesday about the SPY Act and related issues. The interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows.

Why are mandatory IT security standards for cars important today?

The same kinds of advances in technology that can bring us enormous benefits of wireless connections can also guarantee our privacy and security. It is essential to preventing hackers from taking over and controlling cars.

What kind of risks is the SPY Act meant to address?

Ride data includes where you go for ice cream, or take your kids to school, or go shopping. That information could be bought and sold on the market. There have to be stronger safety standards, with the FTC safeguarding privacy.

Look at Chrysler's move. I think there will be huge demand for manufacturers that guarantee safety and privacy. The question is how good it is. I don't think any manufacturer today can say that you can drive off the lot and you will be fine.

If there are accidents, then there will be hearings. The way to look at this issue is like safety with air bags or car seats. At first, there was industry pushback, with the costs cited as too high. People said that consumers wouldn't understand or use them. Then, magically, movement happened.

There have been many data breaches and school shootings that didn't lead to new laws. Why would risks around connected cars be different?

The gun issue is different. It's so politically fraught. There may be a libertarian view, where people ought to be free to have their privacy invaded and the market will determine it.

There's no one who's going to say having a hacker stop my car in the middle of I-95 is my Second Amendment right.

I also think the car manufacturers will see it as a marketing issue. I think there's a real possibility that they will take [the bill] up. 

Do you think consumers will choose increased security or privacy over convenience or efficiency? People aren't quitting Uber over its new privacy policy.

I don't know the answer. It is one of the central questions of our time. There are a vast number of activities where we share private facts about ourselves for convenience or customized service, or the illusion of customized service.

What amazes me is how different people's points of tolerance are. Young people assume the Internet is a really private place, yet it can be one of the most exposed places anywhere.

Aren't people more aware of the lack of privacy online, due to the Edward Snowden disclosures and reporting on it?

Yes, there is more sensitivity, but while people know it intellectually, they still often act as though all of this data and information is completely confidential. People don't always act rationally, based upon the knowledge that they have.

What are the chances of passage for the SPY Act?

I never predict outcomes in Congress, but I am very hopeful about it because it makes such sound, common sense. Hopefully, it will be supported by some parts of the industry out of enlightened self-interest.

I think it is such a profoundly important issue as we move into this brave new world of connected cars. I will keep pushing for it. 

Are you thinking more broadly about the benefits or risks of Internet of Things?

I am. A number of us are. Connected cars open huge potential risks for invasions of privacy.

The Internet of Things opens people's homes to the same dangers, from stoves to appliances. It's almost limitless in the potential for intrusive abuse, if the information falls into the wrong hands.

Is there an issue with a lack of institutional technical acumen in Congress today?

There are real gaps, lapses in information and understanding that we have. One of the benefits of this legislative proposal is to raise the issue and raise awareness.

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