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.


Value in Television

Happened to see a repost about an old (2011) report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finding high electrical costs associated with cable boxes. The environmental cost of rented equipment often gets overlooked, along with the economic losses it perpetrates. Mostly, renting helps the environment. But chronic/long-term renting, where the energy costs or other negative environmental factors are obscured, should not be confused with short-term, purposeful renting.

But, of course, we went down the equipment rental road with Ma Bell for decades before the government finally stepped in and ruled their scheme illegal. Today most people own their own telephones; the few that still have landlines, anyway.

Still, adoption of subscriber-owned equipment appears negligible in television. Digging around turned up a speech/statement from then-commissioner Susan Ness, 11 June 1998 (that’s 15 years ago) (see FCC: Text document: stsn816.txt). It discusses the FCC implementation of Section 629 of the Communications Act. That section charges the FCC with adopting regulations allowing consumers to replace their rented set-top boxes with commercially-available devices. That section was enacted in 1996.

To date, the adoption rate is dismal. It remains a work in stasis: the government has no ability to bootstrap markets in the manner the law dictates.

We see this pattern repeated. Industry, happy with their oligopolies (hell, just look back at Ma Bell, she never did voluntarily sell phones; it took the government breaking the company up to get it done), maintain them. And that’s what we see with cable. And that’s what we’ve seen with tobacco’s sluggish entry into the electronic cigarette market. And so on.

But given enough time, evolution takes its course. The advent of Internet Protocol video services has begun to foster new set-top boxes. New services. Although still developing, it seems clear that before long the industry that didn’t want to evolve will become extinct. Or will likely use whatever cash they have left to buy some small piece of the new industry just as their mast splinters and their sails (and sales) fall to the sea floor.

Ahoy, but a new raider appears on the horizon. We’ve been reading about self-driving cars, and that the ownership of cars will die off. That’s both good and bad, depending on how quickly an oligopoly develops. We will face the same sort of shipwreck of capitalism that cable has been. Like Michael Caine in The Island, stranded on a desert island of bloodthirsty, inbred swashbucklers.

Does the rental racket, per se, mean oligopoly? Not hardly. The oligopoly of phone and cable came not out of necessity but the desire for an extra subscriber fee. Maybe with a provision similar to the Affordable Care Act’s 80% rule (that 80% of premiums go to actual care), it could have been avoided: if all rental fees had to be at least 80% provisioned for equipment replacement/upgrade.

But for cars, as long as the fleet-ready regulations are low enough, anyone could likely purchase and maintain a vehicle that could generate revenue. That is, if the requirements for an autonomous car to be rentable are low enough (some simple quality test system, payment/route system, etc.), it will thwart the ability for some few companies to simply control the market, excluding competitors.