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As GM responds to outcry, federal regulator looking at car data privacy

Kalea Hall and Grant Schwab, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

WASHINGTON — The top federal regulator for consumer protection is assuring the public that it's looking at automakers and third-party brokers who capture and sell sensitive data.

The message from the Federal Trade Commission comes after outcry from U.S. Senators and a series of alarming New York Times reports about automakers — namely General Motors Co. — releasing consumer data without the customers' knowledge.

"Car manufacturers — and all businesses — should take note that the FTC will take action to protect consumers against the illegal collection, use, and disclosure of their personal data," the agency wrote in a recent blog post.

Modern connected cars gather mountains of data about drivers' whereabouts, braking and acceleration habits, demographic information and more, raising concerns from consumers and advocates. The FTC does not publicly announce its investigations, but the statement suggests the regulator is attuned to growing worries as the data-collection technology inside vehicles improves and proliferates rapidly.

“If there’s any agency that can hold U.S. car-makers accountable for their terrible privacy practices, it’s them! This is definitely a step in the right direction for cars and privacy,” said the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog for data privacy, in a May 14 post.

A Mozilla report from September 2023 previously said that the "situation with cars and privacy is not good.” It labeled cars as “the worst category of products we have ever reviewed.”

 

"People don't think about how much data they are generating," U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, said in an interview with The Detroit News. She added that the issue of companies using that data against them is no longer an abstract notion, referencing the New York Times reports: "People saw it really happened."

"Anyone who thinks the Big Three can become big data should recalibrate their expectations — it will not be allowed. I'm encouraged that FTC Chair Khan has put the auto industry on notice that the agency will aggressively enforce the law to protect Americans' rights," said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, an outspoken voice on data privacy issues.

"The public is justifiably outraged by recent press reports revealing that automakers have been tracking drivers and selling that information to sleazy data brokers, leading to higher insurance rates," he added in a statement to The News.

Since the March New York Times investigation into GM's data collection practices — which described the sale of driver behavior data that increased some consumers' insurance rates — the automaker has since discontinued the use of its OnStar Smart Driver product. The company said in an April 24 press release it would unenroll all customers driving GM products, noting “this process will begin over the next few months.”

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