Group Wants Privacy Protection in Self-Driving Car Bill

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Nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog has published an open letter to state assembly speaker John Perez seeking amendments to SB 1298, which would allow Google to legally operate its self-driving cars on California roadways.

Nevada passed a law last year that took effect this March, making the state the first to allow self-driving vehicles. California would be the second such state to do so, though both states have a requirement that a human be present in the driver’s seat and ready to disengage the autopilot feature at any time. It’s debatable, however, whether such vehicles are already in operation, with some Google insiders saying the cars have logged hundreds of thousands of miles — one caused a five-car pileup near the company’s Mountain View, CA headquarters last August, though Google says the accident was the result of human error and that the car was under the control of its driver at the time of the incident.

Consumer Watchdog’s complaint, however, is less with the autonomous nature of the cars than with the information they collect and relay back to Google while on the road.

“Google has emerged as the dominant force on the Internet by amassing digital dossiers on us as we use its services and selling access to us to advertisers. We are Google’s product. Google is first and foremost an advertising company; 98 percent of its $38 billion in revenue comes from advertising,” writes Watchdog president Jamie Court and Privacy Project director John M. Simpson.

The group is asking for amendments to the bill to ensure that if the driverless technology becomes commercially available, users will not be forced to volunteer details on their driving habits, including destinations, speed traveled, routes taken, and other information to the providers of the system, be it Google or another company.

“While we don’t propose to limit the ability of the cars to function by communicating as necessary with satellites and other devices, the collection and retention of data for marketing and other purposes should be banned. Unless the bill is amended, once again society will be forced to play catch-up in dealing with the impact of the privacy invading aspects of a new technology,” the letter concludes, urging lawmakers to consider revisions to bolster consumer privacy before bringing the measure to an assembly vote.

The bill, as it stands, passed the senate on a 37-0 vote May 21.

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