Car-Tracking Device Trades Privacy for Dollars

Opinion: A device using GSM/GPS wireless that reports your car's wherabouts-which is in pilot testing for a British insurance company-is the latest example of a technology marvel that brings a serious loss of privacy.

Imagine this. Youre driving around in your HOV (highly ostentatious vehicle), and you follow your normal route home.

The next day, you are notified by your insurance company: "Under the terms of Court Order 34/FKC/34 paragraph 12 subsection iii, your auto insurance is void."

It turns out that you drove within a mile of the house belonging to your ex-spouse, which violates the terms of a court order. As a result, your auto insurance, which was offered under advantageous terms on the grounds that you had a clean record, no longer applies.

Well, yes, it could happen. Actually, I cant see how it could fail to happen. All insurance is offered on an "utmost good faith" basis, whereby failing to disclose any factor that might invalidate it will indeed invalidate it—even if, had you asked, theyd have decided it didnt count. Its the failure to disclose that is the problem.

And who, in a nutshell, disclosed?

Well, under the terms of your insurance, you got even better terms by agreeing to avoid high-risk areas. Because most of your mileage is done on turnpikes and you keep the vehicle in a garage in a low-crime suburb, your premiums are very low compared with the driver who parks by the curb in a high-crime neighborhood.

And they know youre doing this because you agreed to a monitor—a location-based device that uses GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications)/GPS (Global Positioning System) wireless. In return for avoiding known high-risk areas, your premiums are cut.

Last month, Id have described this as a slightly implausible plot for a futuristic B-movie. This month, I have to report that a British insurance company has installed a couple of hundred prototype monitors in vehicles with the carrot that the drivers will "save thousands" on insurance policies.

/zimages/5/28571.gifThe debate over e-mail privacy is heading to Congress. Click here to read more.

The device is, quite simply, a mobile phone that tracks where you drive and phones home to tell your insurance company. It will know whether you exceeded the speed limit, wont it? Yes, it will. It will know not only how long it takes to get from point A to point B, but which streets you drove on, which red lights you stopped at (and for how long) and, indeed, how fast you traveled.

The suggestion that you can "save thousands" sounds as spurious as any such blandishment from any insurance company, frankly. The difference between a high and a low premium is rarely going to amount to more than a few dozen dollars each year. Youd have to drive to the moon and back several times to save even $1,000.

But thats not the really worrying thing, is it? The worrying thing, for me, is that yet another system is offering to reduce your privacy for the sake of a handful of dollars.

Of course, it is all "voluntary" at the moment. The insurance company piloting this only disclosed the project under strict anonymity conditions, and I dont have any reason to believe that they are insincere. On the other hand, where the carrot doesnt tempt, the stick will drive us onward. Ill wager quite a lot that within two years of this pilot becoming accepted practice, the penalty for refusing it will be high.

A wireless, electronic marvel, magic technology—and a trap for the unwary. You think youre playing with physics, and suddenly you find youre toying with social engineering ...

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