The companies building self-vehicles have been cagey, so far, about how they’re thinking about using individual data. At a Congressional hearing about driverless cars last week, Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, asked repeatedly whether driverless car manufacturers would undertake a minimum standard for consumer privacy protection. No one who was there to testify—including representatives from Google, GM, and the ride-sharing service Lyft—had a clear answer. “You need a minimal standard,” Markey said at one point. “I’m not in a position to comment on that for Google,” said Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car project.
Google has avoided this question before, too.
Last June, John M. Simpson, the director of the Privacy Project for the nonprofit advocacy group, Consumer Watchdog, attended Google’s annual shareholder meeting. (Simpson bought two shares of Google stock, he told me, just so he could have the opportunity to question the company’s executives.)
Simpson asked: “Would you be willing to protect driverless car users’ privacy in the future, and commit today to using the information gathered by driverless cars only for operating the vehicle—and not for other purposes such as marketing?”
The executives on the stage glanced at each other for a moment, before David Drummond, a senior vice president and Google’s chief legal counsel, spoke.
“I think it’s pretty early in the game with driverless cars ... to have a lot of rules saying, ‘thou shalt not do X, Y, and Z, with the data,’” Drummond said. “I think once we get these operational, the value could be significant ... it’s a little early to be drawing conclusions which would, in a lot of ways, reduce innovation and our ability to deliver a great consumer product.”
One approach to protecting privacy could be to anonymize all of the data that self-driving cars collect—making sure specific travel itineraries or details from a given trip aren’t tied to an individual, for example.
But there’s huge potential value to companies who mine individual data and use it for marketing and other services. Self-driving car makers could require an opt-in from consumers before collecting their data—but even that approach is often imperfect. For one thing, self-driving car manufacturers could choose to make opting in a requirement for using the technology at all. And even if individuals are given the choice to opt out of sharing their data—as anyone who has signed a tech platform’s terms of service without reading it knows—terms of service agreements are often lengthy, full of legal jargon, and difficult to parse. Shashua is convinced that Google and its peers have enough incentive to be transparent about how it intends to use passenger data.
“For companies like Google and Uber, privacy issues are very important,” said Amnon Shashua, a co-founder of MobileEye, which makes machine-vision technology for self-driving cars. “That could kill a business, if you don’t handle privacy properly.”
Simpson, from Consumer Watchdog, doesn’t believe that privacy being important means tech giants will do the right thing. “Sometimes it’s just that the people who are designing the gizmo don’t even think in terms of privacy,” he told me. “They just think: More data is always better. In their minds, it’s just, ‘We may not know what we’re going to do with that data.’”
But that’s not good enough, Simpson says. “It’s inappropriate.”