Surveillance capitalism and your car

  • How and why your car is keeping tabs on you
  • What 'behavioural surplus' your car is taking from you
  • Why surveillance capitalism matters

Surveillance capitalism and your car

Google and Amazon’s expansion into cars, as well as their use of surveillance capitalism, is well documented. But according to our poll, drivers aren’t sold on tech companies cashing in on their behavioural surplus.

We found 75% of drivers don’t want any kind of monitoring devices in their car, almost 90% said they would not want their car to share driving habit data with third parties, and only 10% know if their car has a data agreement.

532 people were polled over a weekend on our website. The results show the vast majority of people don’t want their cars snooping on them. Editor, Keith Adams, says: ‘It’s true that we’re agreeing to all manner of terms and conditions on a daily basis – I shudder to think what Google knows about me – but it comes as a surprise to see so few drivers are aware of what their cars knows about them.

‘It suggests that carmakers need to make their data gathering more transparent, their agreements easier to read, and most importantly for the 75% of drivers who don’t want it, to opt out of.’

So there’s a disparity between what people want and what they’re getting. But should you be worried by the cyber capitalism techniques being used on you in your car?

Shoshana Zuboff’s role in surveillance capitalism and behavioural surplus

Don’t worry, these types of digital surveillance techniques aren’t as scary as they sound.

Coiner of both phrases is psychologist and Professor Emerita of Harvard Business School, Shoshana Zuboff. In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of PowerZuboff writes that surveillance capitalism: ‘Unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.’

Some of this data is applied to service improvement, while the rest is declared as a behavioural surplus.

Surveillance capitalism translates your data. Behavioural surplus takes some of that and uses it to make predictions about you.

The first musings on the subject come from academic journals as far back as 2015 but The Age of Surveillance Capitalism wasn’t released until 2018.

The rise of connected services

What your car knows about you

Your behavioral data and how it’s used

> What this means for you

> Should you be worried?

The rise of connected services

Google is renowned as the inventor of extracting behavioural surplus. While it has multiple business models, its core work is to take what you put into it and analyse it.

There are vehicle-specific data companies (sometimes referred to as surveillance capitalists) cashing in on smart capitalism too. One example is Otonomo. In February 2021 the Israeli company floated on the Nasdaq (an American stock exchange) for $1.4 billion. It ingests more than four billion data points per day from more than 40 million vehicles, which it then interprets to create new services.

Automotive manufacturers buy data from Otonomo to create ‘new revenue streams by enabling the utilisation of the vast amounts of data vehicles generate on a daily basis.’

Otonomo is a data aggregator and integrates many different data providers and sources to create the most attractive and comprehensive data pool. It measures things such as throttle position, number of passengers, speed, and trip duration.

BMW iDrive 8.0

One car company that works with Otonomo is BMW. BMW UK told Parkers: ‘Otonomo is a trusted partner for BMW CarData. This ‘personal data’ only concerns ‘personal vehicle data’ and not actual/real personal data.’

This means companies like Otonomo take your data, remove any personal information and package it up for other companies to buy.

How do car manufacturers, data companies, Google and Facebook harvest your data?

One of the biggest ways is through connected services. If your car has its own internet connection, it will most likely have connected services. Broadly these systems allow drivers to use an app. From this, the user can remotely start the car, tell the climate control to reach a set temperature, and ask it to show you the nearest restaurant.

Car companies are forever releasing newer versions. There’s usually a big new screen in the car, an app, and a load of new digital forms to sign.

Some cars make you sign a user agreement, and then give you a user profile. From this they collect anonymised data from you with your car and your app.

Why would they want to do this? Kia‘s latest notification centre attached to its UVO Connect system offers customers information on recalls. But according to Kia’s Manager of Connected Car Product Planning, Sebastián Salera, it could be used for marketing and finance offers too. Kia is currently ‘undecided’ about whether it will offer it, but has admitted that it’s possible.

Kia’s system is clever enough to understand when your finance agreement is up. While it also knows your driving habits. With this, Kia could know what your next car is before you do.

Surveillance capitalism through the My Audi App

What your car knows about you

Any car with an app most likely knows where you are, the regular routes you take, as well as where the car’s parked at night.

Apps based on your phone track and measure you in more specific ways than a car can.

During our nine months with a Volvo XC90, Volvo processed ‘personal data for customer management’ including creating an online and social profile.

Interestingly, Volvo’s app-based service does record things like location, but this kind of personal information is removed as soon as you hand the car back. To check this, we requested the data Volvo held on us and it had deleted all specifics.

What does Volvo do with your data? It discloses personal data to companies within the same group of companies and to different business partners. The business partners can be retailers, marketing research companies, research and development partners, social media companies and companies that Volvo makes use of for IT products and services.

So your car can figure out where you are and why. But cars are also smart enough to tell if you’re too tired to drive, for instance, thanks to facial recognition software.

Subaru‘s driver monitoring system uses a camera and infrared LED discreetly mounted on top of the central information display on the dashboard and watches your eyes and head movements for signs of distraction or drowsiness.

Subaru driver monitoring system

Less sophisticated measuring devices include the ‘black box’. You may have used one for insurance purposes. How fast you drive, the severity of your braking, and how high you rev can be used to determine if you’re driving safely. From this, insurance companies can determine whether to maintain an insurance policy, vary the cost of a premium or decide whether to pay a claim.

Your behavioral data and how it’s used

Writing in Dealer Marketing Magazine just after the 2016 US election, former Cambridge Analytica chief risk officer, Duke Perrucci, said that his analytic methods revealed: ‘How a customer wants to be sold to, what their personality type is, and which methods of persuasion are most effective.’ He added: ‘It only takes small improvements in conversion rates for a dealership to see a dramatic shift in revenue.’

Chief economist of Google, Hal Varian, wrote in the American Economic Review: ‘Because transactions are now computer-mediated we can observe behaviour that was previously unobservable and write contracts on it. This enables transactions that were simply not feasible before.

‘Nowadays it’s a lot easier just to instruct the vehicular monitoring system not to allow the car to be started and to signal the location where it can be picked up.’

Behavioural surplus being gathered with the My Audi App

In the future car manufacturers look set to roll things like your data, finance, and servicing into an app. Mark Aryaeenia is the CEO of vehicle data company, Verex. It exclusively manages the connected data for 13 car makers in the UK including Jaguar Land Rover, Renault, and Mazda.

He told Parkers: ‘Car manufacturers are very much stuck in a product-centric approach, and they want to move away from it.

‘They want to bring all different car ownership prospects, including electric charging, into one reference point – a brand’s app. This helps manufacturers transition into services too.’

What this means for you

At the present, your car knows a lot about you. But there’s little evidence in the way of car manufacturers doing much with that knowledge.

One way car companies are looking to cash in on some knowledge about you is with further add-ons. Some are larger than you’d think.

Skoda offers drivers of cheaper vehicles the ability to upgrade features from inside the car. For instance, Octavia SE customers have the option of upgrading to auto-dip headlights for a one off payment of £179. This includes unlimited access to the feature and is transferable from owner to owner.

BMW in-car upgrade

BMW does something similar. We’ve experienced this in a BMW 530e. There’s a physical button with the corresponding icon for adaptive high beam (where the car notices oncoming traffic and dips the beam for you) on the indicator stalk. After pressing it, the instrument display says ‘function acquirable’, and a pop-up message adds it’s available for purchase – for £160.

Mercedes is the latest company to dial into subscriptions. Drivers of its EQS will have to pay £420 per year for options such as enhanced rear-wheel steering.

Buying from behind the wheel will continue to weasel its way into everyday life thanks to Google.

The Polestar 2 was the first car to have Google’s Android OS natively plumbed into it. Polestar’s website mentions that thanks to Android Automotive OS being native, the Polestar 2 ‘will soon be a shop you can buy things in.’ Polestar’s UK representatives admit that what you will be able to buy largely depends on what Google offers.

Lex Kerssemakers is the head of global commercial operations for Polestar’s parent company, Volvo. He told Parkers: ‘We absolutely will use data to tailor make offers to customers.

‘We went through thousands of legal pages to go with Google. Going with Google means we open up potential for other business opportunities. We’re exploring different options with Google. How we can leverage that remains to be seen.’

Google did not respond to questions about its continued expansion into cars.

Google digital surveillance in the Polestar 2

Mark Aryaeenia added: ‘Car companies are thinking far ahead into the future. For instance, an autonomous car has a captive audience. Imagine the e-commerce opportunities it has.’

Polestar defends sharing data with Google by saying: ‘The vehicle data Google has access to in a bid to improve the driving experience would include things like Google Maps needing to know the battery status so it can help plan routes and charging stops.’

Ford is also partnered with Google. From 2023, it will offer vehicles with Google Assistant voice control functionality, Google maps, and Google Play store built-in.

Ford reckons the partnership ‘will unlock personalised consumer experiences.’ A Ford spokesperson added that the system ‘allows us to have a more intimate relationship with a customer, because their behaviour in a vehicle will make all our interactions personalised.’

Ford UK told Parkers it’s too early to speculate how this might affect UK customers.

Both Ford and Polestar are keen to point out that customers’ data will only be shared with Google and not third-party companies.

Should you be worried?

Worried is a strong word. For now, we’d hazard a guess at no. But it really comes down to personal preference.

On the one hand, you might think that because most of the data shared is anonymous, there’s not much to worry about. If you live in the UK, you’re already under universal surveillance. So what’s one more pair of eyes looking at you?

While on the other hand is the rise of Google and Amazon Alexa. These services being plumbed into cars shows insight into the digital future, and it seems like one where your car will be implicit in the adverts shown to you.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Zuboff said: ‘They’re feeding AIs with data in order to predict behaviour. Virtually everything we do that has an internet touchpoint is a supply chain interface. These companies are constantly capturing behavioural data from us.

‘They have engineered ways of doing this, designed to keep us ignorant…it’s designed to be hidden. They’re using this knowledge to target us. To get us to manipulate our behaviour or attitudes in ways that align with their commercial objectives.’

Thanks to the connected car, in the future your digital profile will be more complete. Whether that bothers you is personal.