Our romance with cars has gone on for more than a century, but now there’s a chance that our once trusted friends will be turned against us by becoming our watchdogs, monitoring our driving habits and reporting them back to Big Brother corporations.
Sound a bit like science fiction? This is closer than you think and it’s all in aid of saving money and making more profits for big business.
Car makers are already working with insurance companies installing sensors that monitor and wirelessly transmit information about how fast you drive, how hard you brake, how many miles you go and at what time you drive. They have been doing this in the United States since 2010. Two companies in Ontario and Quebec now offer the “service” as an option. All of this data is fed into a matrix that will eventually dictate your personal insurance premium.
Called user-based insurance, this is currently a “voluntary” program, an aspect that is unlikely to last if it saves the companies money, because other options will inevitably disappear.
It is predicted that all cars will carry this technology within three years.
This invasion of your privacy will be justified in the name of safety and savings. Already the insurance people are trumpeting how what is called telematics will help “train” drivers to be more careful, to monitor their own speeds, and to make the roads safer. They also claim insurance savings to a maximum of 25 per cent (about $300 in Ontario), although so far the average is more like 12 per cent (in the United States, that average falls to eight per cent).
The other appeal is to the narcissistic curiosity of some people for feedback about themselves. The service promises monthly reports on your personal driving habits. Not promoted is that some insurance companies slap an increase on your monthly insurance bill if they detect an unusual jump in speed or other undesirable behaviour.
This information is available to police in the event of an accident. Questions have been raised as to what happens if the monitor detects a sudden increase in speed well above the legal limit; are the reporting agencies obligated to report you and if so, will you be susceptible to charges?
Logically, the next step would be to plug the telematics system directly into the police service – think of the money that could be saved in not having to man speed traps or install speed cams. Imagine a world where your car could deliver a ticket to you by voice mail: “Sorry, Mr. Jones. I regret to inform you that you have just been assessed a $220 fine for a speeding infraction of 20 km over the speed limit at Grant and Taylor. The money has been automatically withdrawn from your bank account. Should you wish to appeal, please pull over and follow the prompts.” This is not beyond the possible.
Telematics and your person
What if sensors could be implanted in people to monitor behaviours that affect their health? Smoking, alcohol indulgence, overeating are all said to be costing the community billions. What’s to stop health insurers from insisting on personal monitoring to justify their premiums?
Privacy concerns could quickly be overridden by the tyranny of the “greater good”; after all, health care is paid for by the community of taxpayers; it follows that your obesity could be viewed as detrimental to the community, using the same argument they used to force seat belts and bike helmets on your person. Before you know it, people could be required to accept sensor implants that would allow the system to control personal habits or decide to forego insurance.
Already, personal telematics are in use to monitor seniors living alone, especially in detecting a fall.
Not just paranoia
If you think I am a little paranoid, hearken back to how much of our liberty has already been irreparably eroded. Our social insurance numbers, which were supposed to be private, are now demanded by banks, insurers and many other merchants. A retail store in the U.S. refused my credit card because I wouldn’t give them my SIN. Social media has all your personal habits completely pegged. We are manhandled and summarily searched at airports, and even upon entry to government buildings, in the name of security.
You are coerced into giving up personal information when you pay for anything (May I have your postal code, or your telephone number, please?) and if this simple request doesn’t give enough information, you are bribed with “loyalty programs”, which you pay for in higher prices but which appear to offer you “free” stuff. The information you give them is just as valuable as your repeat business.
Loblaws bought Shoppers Drugs for its loyalty program this summer; the loyalty program delivered data on 10 million shoppers!
But even loyalty programs may soon be a thing of the past. The art of predicting personal preferences through telematics and other digital monitoring systems is already highly evolved. Unfortunately, this could have an impact on our freedom of shopping choice which will continue to narrow as a result. After all, why produce goods that attract the attention of the few where the margins are lower because of unit costs?
Given the trends, it is not a leap to imagine that at some point we will routinely be given a sensor or monitoring chip at birth that will feed back all sorts of information to data users for a myriad of purposes. Who wouldn’t want to use such a device to prevent crime or even to deter potential criminals? Why would you refuse if your health could be protected by being plugged in this way or if your children could be safeguarded from kidnapping or worse?
Back to the car
Maybe we should think twice if offered the “option” to activate a personal car monitoring device. Think of where it could lead.
Come to think of it, it’s probably already too late to alter this invasion.
Welcome to the brave new world!