Debating Data Monetization Vs. Privacy

Most drivers are unaware of the privacy they cede by using car-based apps.


The value of data generated by drivers and passengers in vehicles on the road has been apparent to those companies who see ways to monetize it. But is the public always willing to give up its privacy by supplying that data? “The car requires you to okay sharing of data every time you open an app,” noted Doug Betts, senior VP of J.D. Power, during an expert panel at the 2019 SAE WCX. One of the most common is with the use of a navigation app, such as Google Maps, where the map displays paid ads and, if you search, posts still others that are precisely targeted.

Karlyn Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp., one of the WCX panelists, noted the widespread requirement to okay (“sign off”) on end-user waiver-of-privacy agreements that require scrolling through a lengthy block of copy. She asked, “How many people understand or even read them?” adding that the ones she studied used language that typically required two years of college education.

Gen-Z less willing to share data

But does the motorist really want to share data with whomever is supplying the feature he is trying to access? Panel moderator Jeff Plungis, an automotive reporter for Consumers Reports, said, “There’s an assumption that consumers are comfortable with giving away their data. CR is not so sure.” A major issue, he said, is that people don’t know what the data is being used for. As an example, he pointed out that CR found TV sets were easily hacked and that one manufacturer was able to get information on what people were watching.

Betts told the panel that a J.D. Power survey indicated that only 40% of baby boomers were generally willing to share automotive data, and only 18.3% of Generation Z were – and even then, with the assumption of “anonymitization.” And they want benefits for such acceptance. The type of data also is a factor, noted Gahl Berkooz, VP of data analytics and monetization for ZF Friedrichshafen AG. “When it comes to deep technical data, there may be greater opportunities,” he said, then concluded: “There may be more sensitivity on personal data.”

RAND’s Stanley noted a study that found that even efforts to create anonymity are “not a panacea.” With just four points of data, she said, 90% of people could be identified. “It’s hard to be anonymous today,” added Charles Egan, CTO of Blackberry, “so we have to be cautious.” He continued, “cars are being connected, so we need to protect that data and be clear about what is being collected. Eventually, people will want checks and balances, including against some uses of machine learning. So, it’s important to go carefully, because data is the new currency.” In Europe the collection and use of data is regulated, ZF’s Berkooz added, and in the automotive area it transcends under-utilization.

You’re being watched

As noted by J.D. Power’s Betts, “The genie has been out of the bottle with smartphones.” If the data is going to insurance companies, people will fear that going through a stoplight or speeding is going to affect the rates they pay. However, he added, transferring details of vehicle body damage following an accident would enable an insurance company to advise a body shop and put the needed parts on immediate order, so needed repairs could be done expeditiously, an obvious economic benefit.

The value of data often extends into less-obvious areas. Ellen Partridge, of the Shared Use Mobility Center, a public-interest group, noted the deployment of public-use electric scooters in many cities, including Detroit. “Where they go and where they’re left” is data of commercial interest beyond the scooter companies, she said. And of course, the identities of the customers are logged. As RAND’s Stanley noted: “People could feel they’re being surveilled. Consumers must be confident their data is being used responsibly.”

If people decline to share their data, will this capability be limited “for the greater good,” as in vehicle-to-vehicle communications for traffic safety? This point was raised by Blackberry’s Egan and reinforced by Shared Use’s Partridge, who saw traffic information as “public data,” with much of it collected from road-mounted sensors and cameras.