Detroit Free Press
DETROIT -- As the nation and world struggle with ever-complex questions of privacy related to personal data mined from the Internet, Ford found itself trying to assure the public this week that it doesn't use on-board technology to spy on driver behavior.
Last week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ford marketing head Jim Farley sparked a fury among privacy advocates when he said during a panel discussion, "We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you're doing it.
"We have GPS in your car, so we know what you're doing. By the way, we don't supply that data to anyone."
On Wednesday, Ford CEO Alan Mulally received a letter from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, seeking more information on the data Ford collects and how it is used.
Mulally plans to respond by early February as requested.
"What he (Farley) said was not right," Mulally told reporters on the sidelines of the North American International Show. "We do not track the vehicles. That's absolutely wrong. And we'd only send data to get map data if they agree that that's OK to do that, but we don't do anything with the data, we don't track it and we would never do that."
Vehicles produced by Ford and other automakers, as well as myriad mobile devices, can receive and send massive amounts of information. Black boxes capture detail on the car's performance while modems and smartphones transmit information to and from the cloud.
The technology that allows for such voracious data gathering can be used for good purposes. Knowing a car's location can be lifesaving when it alerts emergency services to an accident. Police can track dangerous criminals.
But consumers don't want their driving patterns sold to marketers, their vehicles' speed fed to local law enforcement or be subject to arbitrary privacy invasions.
"People are hyper aware and reactionary about data," said technology analyst Doug Newcomb of Newcomb Consulting in Portland, Ore.
Much like phones or credit cards, personal data belongs to the car owner, but in today's world, everything is subject to subpoena should a judge deem it pertinent in a legal matter. Data from black boxes, for example, are often used as evidence in lawsuits arising from car accidents.
"It's just really important that we have boundaries and guidelines to operate," Mulally said. "Our homes, the cars, everything is going to be on the Internet. Everything's going to be connected. So what are the guidelines?"
While Ford acknowledges each driver owns the data his or her vehicle collects, the company seeks permission to store a copy of the information.
The auto industry has installed modems in vehicles and enabled phones to access safety features such as accident alerts, locating stolen vehicles, unlocking doors remotely and navigation help.
But the world has become more sensitive to privacy in the wake of revelations of U.S. government spying. Former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents showing massive amounts of information are routinely gathered from people's phones, email and other sources.
General Motors' OnStar system generated controversy in 2011 when stories broke that new terms of service allowed the automaker to continue tracking OnStar customers even after they stopped subscribing.
Three weeks after the outcry, the terms were changed.
In 2011, a report by the Government Accountability Office found all carmakers collect location data and share it with third parties that provide services to the car owner.
The report concluded that there were no indications automakers were abusing the data.