Handout photo shows Ford Motor officials posing with a Lincoln MKZ Concept car in Beijing.
Handout photo shows Ford Motor officials posing with a Lincoln MKZ Concept car in Beijing. Reuters

The 21st-century car is filled with technology designed to keep drivers safer than ever before. In-cabin sensor technology, with its power to prevent accidents and counteract distracted driving, is central to advanced automotive engineering today. But new technology usually comes with new concerns, and with interior sensors, one of the concerns is privacy.

What does constant monitoring mean to drivers? What happens to the personal data collected by interior sensors? Who sees it and how will they use it? These questions are vitally important to drivers and carmakers alike, and the answers are evolving along with the technology.

If anything is clear, it’s the fact that drivers won’t be the only ones to benefit from in-car sensors. The data they collect promises tremendous value to car makers and third parties as well—which is why those two groups can expect to share responsibility for preserving driver privacy.

The privacy perspective

It’s interesting to note how fragmented the desire for privacy can be. There’s little concern about privacy in China, where lack of it is a lifelong given, compared to intense concern in the U.S. and even more in Europe; and much less concern among younger drivers, born into a digital world with less expectation of privacy, compared to their elders.

In the privacy-conscious U.S., the thought of in-cabin sensors makes many drivers fear identity theft, or having personal data maliciously used against them. Yet we’ve already relinquished so much privacy in our modern lives, thanks to everything from mobile phones to social media, it’s curious that a loss of privacy inside our cars still matters. Maybe it comes from the sense that cars have always been a personal space; from the connected house to the connected car, there’s a bittersweet sense that we’re losing our last safe havens.

The responsible automaker

In any case, automakers are building cybersecurity safeguards into their systems, and into the point of connectivity between vehicles and networks, to help ensure that data stays within an acceptable driver-to-vehicle loop. More to the point, conserving user privacy may require designing systems that will not share all data without specific user consent —transparent systems that will show users exactly what information they’re consenting to share, who will have access to it, and how it will be used. Drivers will have the ability to block sharing with a particular app while still allowing sharing with other apps.

A few easy-to-remember principles:

1) Data needs to be processed lawfully, fairly, and in a transparent way

2) The purpose of using the data needs to be clearly defined, and data will be collected only for this purpose

3) Irrelevant data needs to be erased

4) Data should be kept only for necessary periods of time

5) Data processing should be secure!

One sign of the auto industry’s serious approach to privacy is the emergence of the data protection officer, a new executive role responsible for maintaining customer privacy. An even more significant indication is the Auto Alliance, an organization of 20 major automakers — including BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen, among others—who’ve pledged to meet or exceed consumer privacy protection principles that are enforceable under privacy and/or consumer protection laws.

The high value of data

In-cabin sensor data can provide a high degree of value to third parties. Auto insurance companies could use the data to investigate accidents—revealing that children were acting up in the back seat, perhaps, and distracting the driver. Robo-taxi fleet managers could use it to keep tabs on their vehicles, checking for vandalism, violence, or forgotten possessions, and to analyze customer occupancy (e.g., the number of riders, and whether they’re men or women, elderly, teens, or in between).

Tracking rider behavior can also reveal opportunities for monetization, such as recognizing that riders staring out the window might be bored—and thus possibly interested in buying snacks or renting videos. Such data is handled by algorithms in an automated process.

However, the mountains of data cars generate today is so “incredibly valuable,” according to the Center for Democracy & Technology, that “carmakers are champing at the bit to find ways to monetize it.” McKinsey & Company research indicates that the “value pool” represented by connected cars will amount to $450 billion to $750 billion by 2030, with an estimated 45 percent coming from direct monetization, tailored advertising, and data sales.

Such impressive revenues hinge on one key: the driver’s agreement to share in-cabin data in exchange for customer benefits. They need a value proposition compelling enough to make them share personal data, McKinsey finds, trusting that they’ll receive “fair value in return.”

The connected car

The sensor systems at the center of these efforts work with the car’s safety systems, helping seatbelts function properly (by gauging a rider’s size and weight, for instance) and optimizing airbag operation by sensing the rider’s posture (if someone bends over to tie a shoe, say, the airbag would be suppressed to prevent injury).

Sensors also monitor driver behavior for safety, detecting where the driver’s attention is focused by gauging where the gaze is directed and where hands are positioned on the steering wheel. Signs of distracted driving are captured, too, whether the driver is talking on a phone or eating a sandwich.

Safety-related data is processed by algorithms in a completely automatic system that isn’t visible to any person. Since the data stays within the system and massive security measures would be taken, there is no breach of privacy.

But that may be changing as cars transform into what McKinsey calls “the nodes of vast information networks.” As this evolutionary phase takes data-sharing beyond the existing driver-to-vehicle loop, we’ll see the birth of a new ecosystem with “a widening potential for new revenue streams, cost savings, and passenger safety and security.” Those all-around benefits may well ease any qualms about surrendering privacy in our last safe haven.

Gil Dotan is the CEO of Guardian Optical Technologies