Privacy Concerns With Google’s Driverless Car
Google’s driverless car is attracting much attention. It is no wonder. The car is a radical departure from the standard car models that have been with us more or less unchanged for almost a century.
Google’s driverless car is attracting much attention. It is no wonder. The car is a radical departure from the standard car models that have been with us more or less unchanged for almost a century. Get into any car and you will instantly find the familiar set-up of the steering wheel in front of you, a gear stick or automatic selector to your left and two or three pedals on the floor. Get in the Google vehicle and you will find none of this. All you will find inside is a couple of seats and two buttons: one to stop the car and one to start it.
The Google vehicle is being hailed as a breakthrough and the first 100 test cars could be on the roads as soon as early next year. Such technology really could transform our relationship with cars. They can be summoned by a smartphone app and will then take us wherever we want to go. When we arrive, the car will then go off to transport someone else. This is a much more efficient model than the current system, where cars spend more than 90% of their time parked and unproductive. Instead of owning cars we would use them much like taxis and this makes much better use of cars, resulting in fewer vehicles being needed. When you add the safety features that allow the cars to ‘talk’ to each other and therefore anticipate problems, the possibility of accidents declines sharply. You will also be able to squeeze more traffic onto our existing roads, meaning less money needed for investment in the road network, while journey times are shortened.
It is all very impressive but some observers are beginning to be uneasy about the amount of data that Google will be collecting. The driverless car will track all of your journeys. Is this a problem? It could be. Imagine a divorce lawyer demanding that Google hands over your data to prove your whereabouts. It is also possible for insurance companies to misuse such data. If you have told them that your car is normally parked in a private car park during the day but the data shows that it was parked on the street, could they use this information to refuse to pay out on a claim? There is also the possibility for government misuse of such data. It would be easy for a government to ask Google to prevent certain cars from driving in certain places. This could be used for proper purposes, such as enforcing a criminal’s banning order, but it could also be used to prevent and hinder law-abiding people from going about their business. It is also possible to imagine certain more authoritarian governments altering the cars’ software to give priority to official vehicles, much like the special government-only lanes on Soviet roads.
All of these misuses of data invade our privacy and they are all the actions of official bodies but the technology also opens us up to hackers. Hacking is a fact of life in computing. Recent actions by groups like ‘Anonymous’ show us that just about any system can be hacked. Would the software systems of autonomous cars be immune from such attacks? Experience would suggest not. It is quite possible that such hacking could bring the entire system to a halt, crippling our cities and bringing the economy to a total standstill. Worse still, could the software be hacked to cause thousands of crashes? Such actions could be the result of malevolent hacking groups but they could also be the result of a new form of technological warfare by a foreign government.
Like almost all new technology, the driverless car offers us many real advantages. The possibility of almost eliminating road accidents and getting us much more quickly to where we are going is compelling. On the other hand, the prospect of a number of bodies having instant access to our whereabouts is worrying and it is an issue that will need to be addressed just as urgently as the technological challenges.
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