My Car talks to another car. Where’s the personal data?

Black CarI attended a conference in Spain at Easter 2010 – the Easter when Ash Wednesday actually meant something. A speaker stood up and described an EU project whereby cars would talk to each other in some way yet to be determined so in the event of congestion (a significant period of slow progress) or a sudden stop (interpreted as an accident) the car would contact a central control room and pass information about these situations. In extreme cases the car would dial 112 and request police or fire or ambulance to attend. At the time the hypercritical audience pooh-poohed the idea pointing out that there was no personal data involved if two cars talked to each other. But is it an intrusion into our private life?

The European Commission recently announced that it would like to see emergency transmitters in all new cars by 2015 – that’s under 3 years away. This “eCall system” is the subject of a new Recommendation from the Commission, which is non-legislative but will be followed by a legislative proposal later. Installation of the eCall system is expected to cost less than €100 per new car. It will be compulsory. The Commission has decided to take legislative action to introduce eCall because voluntary deployment has been insufficient. The Commission had previously called for eCall to be rolled out voluntarily across Europe by 2009 (that’s before planes failed to fly due to the ash cloud of a volcano who’s name is worth 675 points at scrabble) but adoption has been very slow.

Obviously it would help in road safety matters and the early arrival of emergency services also allows the crash site to be cleared more quickly thus reducing the risk of secondary accidents, decreasing congestion times and cutting fuel waste.

The eCall system is activated automatically as soon as in-vehicle sensors detect a serious crash. Once set off, the system dials the European emergency number 112, establishes a telephone link to the appropriate emergency call centre and sends details of the accident to the rescue services, including the time of incident, the accurate position of the crashed vehicle and the direction of travel (most important on motorways and in tunnels). An eCall can also be triggered manually by pushing a button in the car, for example by a witness to a serious accident.

The eCall system is estimated to cost less than €100 per new car to install. To rule out privacy concerns, the eCall system does not allow the tracking of vehicles because it ‘sleeps’ and does not send any signals until it is activated by a crash. However there are a few other issues to bear in mind. It’s a GPS system. There’s a button in every new car labelled SOS which is pre-activated so unless you ask for it to be turned off it’s already on. Some mysterious data controller (maybe a fat one) knows where every car in the EU is at any given time.

Spookily the car’s audio system is linked to the fat controller so he can speak to you with simple sound bites such as “Would you like a big mac while you’re waiting for help – there’s a truck stop 2 clicks away and we can blue tooth your order there”.

I’m pleased I drive a Mk IV Golf. It doesn’t have a cat; it’s not trackable by a fat man sitting in Brussels eating chips with mayonnaise on and it plays 8 track cassettes at maximum volume while I sit in traffic jams on the M25.

Read all about it.

BooksChristmas is coming; the geese are getting weight challenged. Nothing better than to curl up with a good book about privacy issues. Many authors have dabbled in this type of thriller.

Here’s a top ten list for the festive season. Note an e book is not the same as e government (whatever happened to that?)

1. 1984 by George Orwell. The date of the first UK DP Act and blairites will all know the first line – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”. If you haven’t read it yet then shame on you. If you haven’t now is the season to be jolly.

2. Digital Fortress is a techno-thriller novel written by Dan Brown in 1998.The book explores the theme of government surveillance of electronically stored information on the private lives of citizens, and the possible civil liberties and ethical implications using such technology. Bit of a potboiler but uses the date of the current UK DP Act.

3. Jeffrey Deaver hits you with a double whammy with The Blue Nowhere and The Broken Window. Both to do with cyber crime and the latter to do with data warehousing. Lots of the usual violence, sex and car chases thrown in but interesting nonetheless.

4. Two authors who combine their surnames to become Lury Gibson have published 3 books in this field – Need to Know, Dangerous Data and Blood Data all in 2002 (FOISA) and the last 2 feature a data detective called Arthur C Dogg (don’t ask me why) who seems to be able to hack into anything.

5. Not read this one but recommended is Jennifer Government, a novel written by Max Barry. Published in 2003. (Same as PECR). In it people take the surnames of the corporations they work for, and a person with two jobs hyphenates their name (e.g. Julia Nike-McDonalds). USA seems to have taken over the world and privacy is suddenly a big issue.

6. The Dying Light by Henry Porter is set in Britain in the near future, where the tentacles of the surveillance state have been extending their reach throughout society. The heroine is thrown into a dangerous attempt to uncover the rotten-ness of the government after her estranged best friend is killed. Henry has written several other books in the same genre and seems to be more bomb expert than a privacy expert. Good rollicking read as they say in the cheap sundays.

7. The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks is the story of visionaries who fight against an organisation seeking world dominance through control of information. Travellers live off the grid and avoid the glare of the techno state. Harlequins protect Travellers and it’s a jolly good read. There is a follow up but the author seems to have lost his original drive with the sequel.

All of these benefit from being good reads as well as having a privacy angle.

Movies? OK. You might struggle to find some of these.

1. Absence of Malice. Paul Newman and Sally Fields star in this film about privacy rights and the press. The film is not interested in a balanced assessment of conflicting rights; instead it accentuates the sorts of concerns that led to Louis Brandeis’s seminal article on privacy almost a century earlier.

2. The Truman Show. Can you imagine a situation in which every moment of your life from birth to the present is filmed by hidden cameras? That’s what happens to Truman Burbank, the leading character in this movie. For thirty years he has no inkling of what is going on. Then one day he begins to discover the truth. Privacy – you don’t say.

3. Twenty three. The movie’s plot is based on the true story of a group of young computer hackers from Hannover, Germany. In the late 1980s the orphaned Karl Koch invests his heritage in a flat and a home computer. At first he dials up to bulletin boards but soon he and his friend David start breaking into government and military computers. Pepe, one of Karl’s rather criminal acquaintances senses that there is money in computer cracking – he travels to Berlin and tries to contact the KGB.

4. Pirates of Silicon Valley An intriguing character study of two of the most extraordinary individuals of our modern technological era. The movie is historically inaccurate. Nevertheless, it manages to capture the essence of how much of modern computing came to be: the cluelessness of Xerox about what its own computer scientists were doing; Steve Jobs’ artistic vision at Apple; and Bill Gates’ ruthless business practices at Microsoft. And you will be fascinated by how these men got where they are today.

5. The Net. When Angela Bennett played by Sandra Bullock wakes up, she finds that all records of her life have been deleted: She was checked out of her hotel room, her car is no longer at the parking lot, and her credit cards are invalid. Now read on.

6. Enemy of the State. Will Smith played by Will Smith finds that all records of his life are on hold and his credit cards are invalid. Now read on. (Actually quite good stuff this one – if you have to watch only one movie this Xmas…)).

7. Minority Report. In the future, criminals are caught before the crimes they commit actually occur. Good ole boy Tom Cruise gets into hot water and somehow gets to the end of the movie and saves the world.

All you have to do now is convince your line manager you have 10 books and 7 movies to study to keep up to date with your job and you need time off in lieu to get on with it. No doubt colleagues will suggest others.

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