Let me join you, if possible, in your morning journey to the workplace in an unspecified time in the near future.
Here we leave the sidewalk to get in the back seat of a vehicle. As you close the door, the address of your office (our final goal) automatically appears on a screen attached to the back of a leather panel in front of you. “Good morning,” says the voice of self humanoid, pronouncing your name before you tune the radio to NPR as he does every morning.
You decide what you fancy a coffee and you say it to the vehicle. “Your favorite bar is less than a kilometer,” he replied the machine. The bar, as you will soon discover, is located a few steps from the laundry. The vehicle suggests you to pick up the clean laundry because you’re in the area. “I prefer to do it after work”, answer you, and the car plan your evening accordingly itinerary.
As we go to the bar to have coffee the car goes around the block. Then we return the vehicle to resume the journey to the office. In the vegetarian restaurant that you like they have announced a special menu for lunch and the car makes you know as we walk past. The car asks you for permission and book a table for Friday.
We pass a grocery store, and the monitor displays a list of products. Touching the screen here and there, add them to the shopping list. The car is so programmed to go and retrieve the order and deliver it tonight. It is the era in which small everyday things are delegated to a machine.
Now your office is no more than a kilometer. As always, the appointments that you have taken this morning to appear on the screen (a video conference at 10, a meeting at 11) with the alarm that today is the birthday of a colleague.
It is the era of driverless cars, a time when the little everyday things are delegated to a machine. The trip was pleasant, relaxed and efficient. In addition to promise an unprecedented security on public roads, automated vehicles could make our life much easier, giving us more free time and more attention to focus on other issues as we move from one place to another.
But in all this there is also a downside. Retrace the scene for a minute and examine the journey more closely.
Here we are: the car came to pick. We wanted a coffee, offered us a bar. But if we had stopped to look at the map on the screen, we noticed that the bar was not the most comfortable to stay, but it was a local sponsored, not much different from the results of a Google payment. The car changed direction to bring you this far.
The same can be said of Laundry. If you decided to bring there your clothes, it’s because the car I suggested it. And if you ever suggested it is because the laundry has paid Google, the manufacturer of the automatic vehicles, so as to become a laundry recommended in your area.
As for the special menu, that is really one of your favorite restaurants, but the car you have never taken it before. The vehicle knows your tastes because it has examined your emails, identified the keywords and analyzed the tone of the messages.
Similarly, the car knew what products the grocery store because they show you studied your previous purchases. Also, once you have told a friend sitting in the car with you the name of a beer that you like.
The machine has listened to the conversation, he identified the key words related to brands and understood that he had to advise you to put the beer in your shopping list when it was proposed at a discount. In this near future full of automobiles without driver, the convenience price is under surveillance.
Manufacturers of self-driving cars have not said how they plan to use personal information
Data collection is a natural extension of the capabilities of autonomous vehicles. From the technological point of view, the operation of the car without a driver depends on the amount of data that must cross a lattice of refined sensors. The vehicle has to know where it is and where it is going and be able to keep track of every object and living being on the road. Driverless cars will be based on sophisticated cameras and GPS data with high precision.
This means that cars will put together a lot ‘of information about their passengers (such as the data that Uber has accumulated on its customers’ travel behavior, but with a higher accuracy level). More vehicles will be customized, plus collect personal data. The future that I have described may still be far away, but there is no reason to believe that what I painted is just a scenario.
So far the manufacturers of vehicles without drivers have been reticent about the way in which they think they use personal data. During a session of the US Congress on driverless cars, last week Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, he has repeatedly asked if the manufacturers of autonomous vehicles would adopt minimum standards for the protection of consumer privacy.
None of the people interviewed (among whom were representatives of Google, the GM and Lyft, a ride-sharing service) had clear answers. “A set of rules is needed,” he said at one point Markey. “I’m not in the position to comment on the matter on behalf of Google,” replied Chris Urmson, the project director of Google self-driving car project (Wayna). Google has dodged the question in the past.
In June, John M. Simpson, the director of the Privacy Project non-profit organization of consumer protection Consumer Watchdog, attended the annual meeting of the shareholders of Google (Simpson explained to me to have bought two shares of the company to have the opportunity to ask questions to managers).
Simpson asked: “Would you be willing to protect the privacy of users of the car without driver and to commit immediately to use the information collected only to drive the vehicle, and not for other marketing purposes?”.
The directors present on stage exchanged a quick glance and then David Drummond, one of the company’s vice presidents as well as Google’s chief legal counsel, took the floor.
“I think the game of driverless cars is only just beginning and it is too early to establish rules that say: ‘you will not do X, Y and Z with this data’,” Drummond replied. “I think when the vehicles will be operating, the value could be substantial … is a bit ‘too early to draw conclusions, from many points of view, would limit innovation and our ability to produce good out of the ordinary consumer”.
A huge potential
One way to protect privacy may make anonymous all data collected from the car without driver: in this way would ensure that itineraries and travel details are not attributable to a single person.
But the potential is huge for companies that store personally identifiable information and use them for marketing and other services. Manufacturers of driverless cars could ask the consent of consumers before collecting the data, but this approach is often imperfect.
On the one hand, the autonomous vehicle manufacturers could decide to treat this agreement as a necessary condition to use their technology. And even if the individual could choose whether to allow or disallow the use of their data, often, as anyone who has subscribed to the terms of service of an online platform without having read them, these contracts are full of legal jargon and difficult to read.
Amnon Shashua, one of the founders of MobileEye, a manufacturer of machine vision systems for autonomous vehicles, believes that Google and others have good reason to ensure transparency as to how they want to use passenger data.
“For companies like Google and Uber the issue of privacy is very important,” notes Shashua. “A company that does not handle properly the privacy in danger of bankruptcy.”
Consumer Watchdog Simpson does not think that the importance of privacy means that the technology giants will do the right thing. “The fact is that sometimes those who design the object does not even think to privacy,” said Simpson. “They just think: there are more data, the better. Their idea is that for now can not know what will serve all of that data. ”