Here's why privacy advocates say automakers are spying on drivers

Today’s cars have an unprecedented capacity to surveil people inside and around them, and it’s raising alarms with privacy advocates.

A growing chorus of advocates and politicians say automakers aren’t doing enough to protect consumer data from companies, criminals or even the government itself. 

One car owner in Florida filed a lawsuit in March against General Motors and LexisNexis Risk Solutions alleging the two entities collected data on his driving habits without his consent, which led to difficulties securing insurance policies and premium increases.

GM told CNBC the automaker cut ties with data brokers and is reviewing the legal claims. LexisNexis Risk Solutions didn’t return a request for comment.

That and other lawsuits came months after the Mozilla Foundation — the maker of the Firefox browser — published a report that called cars a “privacy nightmare.” The group said cars are among the least secure devices you can buy.

“Our cars aren’t a means of independence and privacy anymore,” said Jen Caltrider, director of the Mozilla Foundation’s Privacy Not Included program, in an interview with CNBC. “They’re a place that we can be spied and surveilled and coerced.”

Caltrider and colleagues review privacy agreements for many different types of tech devices, and evaluate how well they meet the group’s standards for preserving the privacy and security of users. Those that don’t pass muster earn the groups “privacy not included” rating. In this case, every one of the 25 car brands the group reviewed earned that label, making cars the worst product category the group has ever evaluated. 

CNBC reached out to the 25 brands the Mozilla Foundation reviewed. Most either did not respond or declined to be interviewed.

GM, Nissan, Stellantis and BMW responded with statements saying they take customer privacy and data protection very seriously and comply with all applicable laws.

Nissan said “previous reports suggesting otherwise misunderstood or mischaracterized our privacy practices,” and Stellantis added that the Mozilla report “contained multiple errors.”

A major industry trade group, Alliance for Automotive Innovation, shared a privacy memo with CNBC saying that connected car technology “enables lifesaving safety systems, allows automakers to proactively identify defects and pinpoint resolutions … by design. No, your car isn’t spying on you.” 

Nevertheless, more than 70% of Americans say they’re worried about being tracked, according to a recent study by Pew Research Center. And regulators are taking notice.

In late April, two senators asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate automakers for allegedly deceiving customers about the companies’ data management practices. Other agencies at the state and federal levels are probing the issue. 

Watch the video to learn more.

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