Volkswagen: ‘The Car Must Not Become A Data Monster’

The Jetsons-like future of cars that can drive themselves—or otherwise make the driving experience safer and more pleasant—is here. But fanfare aside, there’s a far less pleasant issue that needs to be addressed: There is a profound potential for companies to misuse our data.

We all eagerly anticipate being saving a few cents off our regular gasoline bill, we may also be ensuring we’re uninsurable—or worse. Who will protect us from our own data?

The Rise (And Rise) Of The Data Monster

The automobile industry is taking data privacy very seriously, but it’s going to be an ongoing issue for manufacturers to grapple with. Speaking at CeBit this past week, Volkswagen chairman Martin Winterkorn expressed concern that automobiles could become “data monsters”:

The car must not become a data monster. Car makers already protect drivers from hydroplaning, fatigue and traffic. They must also protect against government misuse of data. I clearly say yes to Big Data, yes to greater security and convenience, but no to paternalism and Big Brother.

That’s easier said than done, especially when Winterkorn expects the auto manufacturers that stand to profit from our data to also selflessly protect it on our behalf. According to a report of his speech, Winterkorn called for a “voluntary commitment from the car industry to protect customer data and said his company stands ready to join such an effort.”

What a nice sentiment. Sadly, the auto industry doesn’t work that way.

I’m not ringing alarm bells or suggesting everyone return to the idyllic days of horse-drawn carriages. (Not so idyllic for horses.) Rather, I’m suggesting that in our frenetic rush to put our data to work, we’ve fallen woefully short of figuring out how to balance data protection with data use. 

The Problem Is Us

Striking this balance is tricky, particularly since we—the very people who generate the data—are so callous in our concern for how it is used, as I’ve argued before. So long as vendors like Volkswagen and Google make data-driven deals, we’re likely going to keep shoveling them our data to make their vehicles go—literally.

Maybe the question isn’t how can companies help us manage our data more wisely—but whether companies are willing to help us at all.

Companies are set up to make money: That is their raison d’être. It’s probably asking too much to insist they put profit-maximizing motives aside for the greater good. And it may also be too much to ask consumers to curb their appetites for a deal, or stop peddling their data to the highest bidder—or really any bidder.

Hence, Tim O’Reilly suggests that the right answer might “not [be] to prohibit the collection of data, as so many misguided privacy advocates seem to urge, but rather, to prohibit its misuse once companies have that data.” O’Reilly calls out insider trading regulations as an example of a law that kicks in once someone has extraordinary data. Getting the data isn’t wrong, but using it in certain ways is.

Let The Market Decide?

Trust in the government, at least here in the U.S., isn’t exactly booming right now. It’s hard to imagine good laws emerging from bodies so driven by special interests and partisanship. This could take awhile.

However, it’s very possible that data protection will become a key feature vendors sell to differentiate themselves. Wal-Mart’s Gibu Thomas, senior vice president of mobile and digital, puts it this way:

The Walmart brand is fundamentally built on trust. It’s a place people have gone for many years, where they know they’ll save money. Our philosophy is pretty simple: When we use data, be transparent to the customers so that they can know what’s going on. There’s a clear opt-out mechanism. And, more important, the value equation has to be there. If we save them money or remind them of something they might need, no one says, “Wait, how did you get that data?” or “Why are you using that data?” They say, “Thank you!” I think we all know where the creep factor comes in, intuitively. Do unto others as you want to be done to you, right?

I suspect most people don’t associate Wal-Mart with “trust,” and even fewer people associate it with “data privacy.” This isn’t a knock on Wal-Mart, but rather a recognition that we’re simply not far enough along to clearly distinguish between companies we can trust our data with, and those with we can’t. 

Take ownCloud. While not a consumer brand, and minuscule compared to competitors like Box and Dropbox, ownCloud recently raised another $6.3 million in its quest to give enterprises more control over their data. It’s not hard to envision a day when consumer brands, too, will start to distinguish themselves in similar ways, offering consumers fine-grained control over their data.

Indeed, Google launched its Data Liberation Front years ago to provide just such a service, though it hasn’t amplified this message as much lately. Only as the market matures and demands it will Google and others really elevate their standards for data privacy and security.

Government And Markets

Today, we’re happily selling our data birthright for a mess of pottage, and soon enough we’re going to be throwing our data into Google’s self-driving cars to save a few bucks on gas and give ourselves the luxury of texting while driving. But that’s because this kind of data collection and usage is still so new that vendors don’t really need to compete for our data—at least not yet.

Over time, as vendors start to blend together, data control will become a selling point, and so we’ll see vendors giving us control not for our sakes, but rather for theirs. This won’t replace government intervention, but rather complement the legislation. Together, the market and the law can help us tame our appetite for the almighty deal.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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