About the Privacy Argument Against Autocars

Image of an overgrown field with the remnants of a car visible (back wheels, steering column).
By Ben Salter (Flickr: ben_salter)

One of the arguments against self-driving vehicles is the privacy argument. Won’t you be tracked? Won’t police be able to stop the car? What if the navigation is hacked? And so on.

The problem with this argument is that it avoids the fact that we have the same problem already in many other facets of our lives. The issues are only more obvious and accute when you’re talking about putting your life into the cyberhands of an algorithm.

Society has a real need to confront the security and privacy issues much more directly than it has done. Autocars may raise the issue to higher prominence, which may help us strike a new balance sooner. In that, it could be a feature. But how we ultimately deal with the erosion of barriers to privacy and security is still unsolved.

It will need to be solved even if we stuck to manual cars, of course. But it also needs to be solved with televisions that watch you, phones that listen to you (for voice control), and similar services. It needs to be solved when the day comes that your phone tells a restaurant you’re allergic to something. And so on.

There is a balance to be struck between providing information and retaining privacy. And we have yet to strike it in most cases. Our political world is full of dark money, where donors choose not to reveal themselves while attacking others. Our tax code is full of subtle blind alleys where large companies and the very rich hide their money.

What you buy is tracked, which is one of the reasons that some companies are shunning NFC-based payments like ApplePay. ApplePay would reduce the information they receive when you buy something.

And, of course, online you leave your digital footprints as you jump from reading Eight Exercises that Your Ancestors would Laugh Their Asses Off at You for Doing to ordering food online to reading this blog.

Point is, we’re already being tracked through all manner of invasive tools both in meatspace and in cyberspace. One more meatspace tracking measure does not seem to raise itself in priority above balancing them all correctly and comprehensively.

Even your goods are tracked as they are shipped to you. And you like that. It lets you know when your stuff will get home.

Done right, instead of waiting on someone running late for a meeting, you could see that they’re stuck waiting for an autocar. Done wrong, you might have a surprise party ruined because the birthday human sees that everyone’s at their house. Or couples might catch each other cheating. Or stalkers and criminals will hack the system and use it for evil means.

But the good news is that there are real enough non-totalitarian harms to giving up privacy to make strong arguments for laws and technical designs that let us retain privacy, even in autocars. The balance is yet to be struck, but the reasons are there for it. It may not even be a world we find comfortable, it may be less private than we would like. But there’s no indication it will be as bad as the tracking that’s already going on today.