What you need to know:

Essentially all modern cars have become computers on wheels. Data collected by cars had historically stayed within the vehicle itself, but increasingly more and more data points are sent back to the manufacturer as today’s cars have all become equipped with always-on wireless transmitters.

Modern vehicles have access to your data broadly in three buckets: vehicle location, vehicle performance and driver behavior. Data points collected can include how you’re driving, where you live, where you go, music you listen to and if you connect your phone– your phone ID, your contacts’ information, who you call and text.

Manufacturers are increasingly realizing that they’re not only hardware but also software companies, as most modern cars now come with millions of lines of code. Much of this data can and has been put to good use to improve performance and enhance vehicle safety. However, this data can also be useful to many third parties like insurance companies to predict how safe you drive, to retailers to reveal buying habits and for location-based promotions, to government agencies or law enforcement for tracking citizens.

One industry whitepaper by consulting firm McKinsey projects a $450-$750 billion industry for automotive data. Indeed, some of these companies have already begun experimenting, with one automaker trying to correlate music tastes and spending habits by tracking what some drivers listened to and patterns in where they traveled. With another creating a marketplace program, with in-car apps that allows drivers to order and pay for items such as coffee and gas directly from their vehicle.

As cars become more advanced with even more sensors/cameras added, as wireless connections gets cheaper and faster and as you spend less time in them driving with the advance of autonomous vehicle technology—more data will be collect and more of your time will be spent in the car engaging technology. This will only further push manufacturers towards monetizing your data.

For now though, carmakers haven’t totally figured out what to do with the growing amounts of driving data that is generated and so far, have been responsive to privacy concerns as top automakers have pledged to abide by a set of privacy policies that included not sharing information with third parties without “owners’ consent”. Consent, though is often buried in lengthy owner’s manuals and purchase or service agreements, which are rarely read and often do not explicitly spell out how data will be used and shared.


Beyond manufacturers, you and your car can also be tracked by Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs). These devices are mounted on street poles, street lights and highway overpasses all across the country. They can also be found mounted in mobile trailers and on top of many police cars. These readers snap a picture of plates on every vehicle that drives by. This along with location data is stored in law enforcement databases, capturing where millions across the nation have been.

In additional, many repossession agents also have these devices equipped and are paid to contribute this data to private databases that are accessible by private companies and even some private individuals (like other repo men and private investigators). Security measures in these private databases can be lax and there is no telling who can eventually get access to this information.

When these databases are combined with other sources of data (particularly ones that connect an individual to a license plate), you can essentially be tracked at the individual level. Furthermore, technology exists that notify users of these databases the moment a license plate is scanned, which essentially enables real-time location tracking.

Learn More:

Overview of car data and privacy, and what one journalist found when he hacked into his vehicle

GM’s experiment connecting radio listening habits to spending habits

Who really owns the data your vehicle collects

POV on why carmakers have to become data companies to fend off big tech

Cars can pull data from your phone once its connected

Learn more about ALPRs

DRN, a private license plate surveillance network

How ICE has used these license plate databases

What to do:

There is not much you can do to minimize data collection by cars and to avoid ALPRs. Opt out mechanisms do not exists with the major car manufacturers.