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Mobility Justice

How Your Car is Doubling as a Data Collection Device — And Who’s Profiting

Cars and the infrastructure that support them are spying on all of us. What will it take to keep them in check?

Editor's note: this is the final article in a series on the new book, "Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality." Read part one here and part two here.

In their new book, Cars and Jails: Freedom Dreams, Debt and Carcerality, authors Julie Livingston and and Andrew Ross argue that millions of low-income U.S. residents are literally and figuratively imprisoned by the costs of compulsory car ownership and its associated mass of fines, fees, forfeitures, and debts. But they also say that drivers who never pay a single traffic ticket or take on a single predatory auto loan are still being robbed by that extractive system — because their driving data is being sold to the highest bidder, whether they know it or not.

In the book's stunning final chapters, Livingston and Ross detail how the
the automobile and the systems of infrastructure and enforcement that support it have become "ground zero for the ever-expanding web of data where finances, surveillance, and carcerality meet." And ironically, much of that technology has been sold to Americans as necessary measures to monitor roadway safety and vehicle emissions — even if they're often used to far more questionable ends.

"There are vital ecological and traffic-safety reasons for the authorities to keep an eye on the roads," the authors wrote. "But much of this surveillance is instead undertaken to track and control racialized and poor populations and/or to extract wealth through revenue policing."

How states make money off of surveilling their roads

Ross and Livingston trace the rise of roadway "surveillance capitalism" — a term they borrow from scholar Shoshana Zuboff — as far back as the invention of the modern driver's license, which they say has gradually evolved into "a master key" to a vast trove of personal information well beyond what's printed on our IDs themselves. And they say law enforcement officers don't just draw on that trove when they pull over a driver suspected of a crime; federal agencies like the FBI and ICE also make "extensive use of their unmonitored access to DMV data," using facial recognition software to cross-match driver's license images with surveillance footage as they investigate crimes.

That software, though, is often prone to errors, particularly when trained on people with darker skin — as is the automated license plate reader software that many cities rely on to catch speeders and red light runners, which some studies show are wrong around 10 percent of the time. Because both kinds of technology, by their nature, are used to help search for perpetrators among of sea of innocent people, they end up cataloging vast reams of data on the movements of roadway users not suspected of any crime at all.

While much of that data is dumped, the authors say many agencies "hold onto it indefinitely, resulting in a web of databases storing billions of time-stamped locations ... whether they have been recorded in the parking lot of a mosque, a doctor's office, a strip club, or a near a political rally, raising major privacy concerns."

And law enforcement agencies aren't the only people who are able to access motorists' data. While the 1994 Driver's Privacy Protection Act helped put some restrictions on who can query DMV databases and data captured by license plate readers, it still allowed for a range of loopholes that allow governments not just to share this information for the purposes of investigations and court proceedings, but to actually sell it to private investigators, insurance companies, credit rating bureaus, and even marketing firms and data brokers.

One study cited by the authors says that in 2017 alone, Florida earned a whopping $77 million from such sales, while another found that South Carolina took home $42 million across three years — but drivers themselves collected none of that money, because they didn't own it.

'Cars are giant mobile computers'

Motorists also don't have any claim to the profits when their cars collect data on their occupants — and the sheer breadth of that data is dizzying. In addition to safety data on driving behaviors that's crucial for law enforcement to know in the event of a crash, cars collect stats on the destinations their drivers' most frequently plug into GoogleMaps, the text messages they dictate into their infotainment systems, the songs they ask the radio to play, and even their weight as registered by sensors embedded in seats.

By the end of the decade, McKinsey estimates that onboard vehicle telematics — a cluster of onboard technologies that include the "GPS systems, onboard cameras, sensors and networked systems into which smartphones are plugged," which are found on virtually all new cars — will represent a $750 billion product that can be not only subpoenaed by law enforcement and litigants in civil cases, but sold to private entities, too.

"Basically, our cars are giant mobile computers, and our streetscapes and even our private homes are being wired in conjunction with those giant mobile computers," said Livingston. "Automakers are buying and selling the data that are generated through American consumers’ driving behavior. And that gets metricized and bundled and sold, including to the credit agencies, which wind up turning around and using it to decide how to structure their loans."

Livingston stresses that this largely invisible data harvest can make it particularly easy for predatory dealers to find new people to target for subprime auto loans, putting them into newer cars that will collect still more data on them and begin the cycle anew. The authors cite legal scholars like Mikella Hurley and Julius Adebayo, who called out data brokers for generating so-called "sucker lists" of consumers whose mobility data suggested they were likely "old, in financial distress, or otherwise vulnerable to specific marketing pitches."

Because this process is largely invisible to consumers, there's very little public understanding of how it devastates lives — and very little pressure to regulate it.

"Compared to European Union, for example, which does have some fairly robust general data protection regulation, there's pretty much nothing here in this country — and especially nothing that's specific to the automobile world to prevent cars from spying on us," added Ross. "[Even when you simply] plug your iPhone into a next-generation car, the automaker is sucking out all that data — potentially everything on your phone, even your conversations. There's nothing to stop them from doing it, and that worth a lot of money to them. Potentially more than the value of selling a car itself."

Livingston was careful to note that "surveillance capitalism is not in any way, shape, or form limited to the car." Nevertheless, she said, "the car is a really excellent arena from which to start to understand the profit that stands to be made through the commodification of human behavior as it interacts with the machine. and also the way that helps create greater and greater surveillance upon public space, including on the road."

Why Americans still love their cars — even when they put them in jail

Despite all the ways that automobiles help put U.S. residents in debt, in jail, and under constant surveillance, Livingston and Ross say that many of the formerly incarcerated people they interviewed for their book still love their vehicles — and that we can't unwind these dangerous systems unless we acknowledge that.

"For the formerly incarcerated people that we talked to, it was easy to see where their affection and feelings for their cars came from," said Livingston. "First of all, immobility is at the core of the US penal system. People are held in cages — literal cages, unable to move, unable to see the sky, held in place often for years at a time. And a car is the opposite of that. It is the freedom to move and to come and go as you want and as you see fit. Though, of course, the reality doesn't always match that fantasy."

To change that reality, the authors says it's not enough just to regulate predatory auto loans, radically rethink our approach to traffic safety, and end the corrosive cycle of fines and fees that traps countless low-income drivers in poverty or worse. We also need to create mobility alternatives that people love more than private cars — and that will be no easy task.

"I know it's obvious, but we need better systems of public transportation within this country," added Livingston. "And they also need to be pleasurable; they need to be aesthetic; they need to offer us something that makes us want to use them ... There's no one set of solutions. [It will take] a kind of interplay to slowly unlock the vise grip that we've created for ourselves."

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