There's a Tom Petty song that is a hymn to the freedom of the open road – and to the random thoughts that run through one's mind as highway hypnosis begins to set in. Given the state of satellite technology as it pertains to our cars, however, the future holds, not the gleaming chrome of what was once America's love affair with the automobile, but the "white line nightmare" invoked by the gravel-voiced narrator of "The Road Warrior."
A year ago, ars technica reported that General Motors' 2009 OnStar®-equipped vehicles would be manufactured with some new features. The problem is that these features raise or, rather, continue to raise very real issues of personal privacy, security and freedom from government intervention and control. Specifically, the latest incarnation of OnStar® will make it possible for law enforcement, and therefore government, to do everything from monitor your location and communications to stopping your vehicle by remote control.
OnStar® is a telematics service – something WhatIs.com defines as "... the blending of computers and wireless telecommunications technologies, ostensibly with the goal of efficiently conveying information over vast networks to improve a host of business functions or government-related public services. ... The term has evolved to refer to automobile systems that combine global positioning satellite (GPS) tracking and other wireless communications for automatic roadside assistance and remote diagnostics."
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While telematics encompasses far more than automotive technology, it is the increase in invasive technological intervention and control in your car that concerns me. Vehicles on the road today equipped with such technology offer a dizzying array of features. Some relate to safety – automated reporting of an accident with air bag deployment, for example – and some are very convenient, such as turn-by-turn directions, hands-free built-in wireless phones and even Internet access. Your car can do everything from play your MP3 files to help you download them in the first place. As useful and even fun as this is, at what cost does such convenience come?
The feature not previously available, slated for 2009 model-year release, is remote slowdown-and-stop of a stolen vehicle. General Motors' public relations material stresses that a vehicle so equipped is slowed down gradually, with all other functions of the car (such as anti-lock brakes and steering) under complete control of the driver. This is, presumably, to prevent a stolen vehicle from becoming an uncontrolled projectile should the anti-theft lockout kick in during a high-speed chase. As comforting as it might be to think that your car could be shut down remotely in the event it is stolen, at what point should the driver become concerned that this feature could be used against him?
One of the biggest threats to individual freedom, privacy and anonymity in the modern age is the increasing connectivity of various previously discrete databases. As it becomes possible to cross-index multiple sources of data about you, your life and your activities, an increasingly detailed, trackable and controllable profile of your day-to-day life, interests and pursuits becomes available. The fully equipped, wireless-enabled, GPS-tracked vehicle allows the user to make hands-free phone calls – at the cost of potential recording of the calls themselves, or the tracking of the called numbers. Such a vehicle allows the user to receive turn-by-turn directions – at the cost of having that driver's GPS-satellite-tracked location transmitted to a server at all times. The automobile makes it possible for the operator to call in and have slowed and stopped a stolen vehicle – at the cost of turning the key in a vehicle that suddenly will not start, should the government determine that a state of emergency exists and that "no unnecessary travel" should be the order of the day for the duration of the crisis. While sitting in that temporarily useless vehicle, the owner could comfort himself by surfing the Internet – at the cost of having every site he visits tracked and cataloged, while the owners of this particular Internet portal determine which sites they will block as violating their internally defined terms of service.
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While we're feeling particularly paranoid, remember that it's already possible to activate a wireless phone remotely to use it as a listening device. While most of us carry wireless phones, one could conceivably leave one's phone at home if the need or desire for privacy was great. Integrate that phone into the vehicle, and you've lost the ability ever to leave your phone behind – while making it possible for every conversation you have in your OnStar®-equipped vehicle to be monitored. Assurances from the companies involved, and even the government, are meaningless. If it is technologically possible to listen to your conversations, someone, somewhere, at some point, will listen to someone. It is inevitable, and as this inevitability becomes more accepted, the frequency of these violations of our civil liberties will increase.
The siren song of all technology is its convenience. OnStar® is yet another example of an incredibly useful, convenient and even fun means of making a driver and that driver's passengers safer while providing them with a variety of luxuries. Increased access to information and communication, however, always comes at a price, because that access is rarely only one way. We must consider this whenever we embrace some new feature, or the feature set of a new technological category. It will always seem like a good idea at the time. The dream of technological interconnectivity and instant access to information, however, can easily and quickly become a nightmare.