Telematics and Privacy: How Safe is Your Data?

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Telematics has understandably raised many moral questions about privacy. The idea of our every movement being tracked is something that has frequently been a theme in dystopian novels and sci-fi films. Many fear that “Big Brother” is coming and using a tracking device in our car in return for cheaper insurance is one step on a slippery slope towards an Orwellian future.

However telematics doesn’t necessarily have to equal an end to privacy. There’s no automatic link between your insurer using your driving habits to price your insurance and the government knowing your whereabouts or your partner finding out about an affair. The key is how your data is stored, who is given access and how much importance the insurer places on user privacy.

Telematics is technically a very broad range of technologies, but the form that almost everyone is referring to when they use the term is a little device that is put into vehicles which is used to track location through GPS and sometimes other driving signals such as usage of pedals and the steering wheel. Telematics is increasingly common in both commercial fleets, looking to save money on fuel, and for insurance policies popular with both infrequent car users and the young.

The privacy implications of each of the two main uses are different, as different firms have access to the data with each use. Arguably more privacy implications are to be found in the use of telematics in fleets, especially when the fleet vehicles are used by employees outside of working hours.

Commercial Fleets and Company Cars

Commercial fleets have been one of the quickest to take up telematic devices. Millions of fleet vehicles now have ‘black box’ tracking devices installed allowing employers to keep an eye on where each vehicle is using a GPS chip inside the telematics box. During working hours when drivers are driving assigned routes privacy concerns are relatively minimal. While a company can see if a driver is skipping work or taking extra long lunch breaks, most would consider checking if an employee is regularly breaking their contract of employment in this way to be a legitimate use of the technology.

In other countries where employers pay for private medical insurance, such as the USA, using the technology to check on lunchtime eating habits does have major privacy implications. Employees there are often instructed to lose weight or lose their jobs. However in the UK it’s unlikely that employers would care if you bought a healthy salad or went to a fast food chain for lunch.

The major privacy concerns come from when telematics devices are installed in fleet vehicles used out of hours. In certain industries employers have a long history of blacklisting workers who have been involved in certain activities, from heavy drinking to going to trade union meetings. Having a company car with a GPS chip installed makes it much easier for blacklisters to keep an eye on their employees. It’s for this reason that unions have put up fights against telematics, for instance in the 1980s early telematics devices by IBM were in some cases successfully resisted by American unions. Many employers realise that telematics devices have the potential to lead to a breakdown in industrial relations and therefore have imposed strict limitations on when they can be used by the firms.

Individual insurance customers

Privacy implications for those who are simply taking out telematics policies with insurers to save on premiums are very different. Rather than your boss having access to data about your whereabouts, your data is held by an insurance company.

Insurers have contractual obligations with their customers to keep the telematics data secure and private. They therefore will not give out the information to third parties such as family members without permission from the customer or a court order forcing them to do so.

Some young people have been tracked by their parents without their knowledge when their parents have signed them up for the telematics policy and haven’t informed the young driver that they will also have access. The best way of ensuring only those you want to access your driving data have access is to sign up for the telematics insurance policy yourself rather allowing a family member to do this for you.

Potential for data to be hacked is always a concern. In the age of distributed and sophisticated hacking groups – the most famous of which include Anonymous – even the most sophisticated security has been proved to have vulnerabilities. However insurers take data privacy more seriously than most as they rely on data for their competitiveness.

Insurance company employees have been training to uphold high standards of privacy and are monitored to ensure they don’t use customers data for anything other than setting premiums. Many of these tasks are done automatically by software without the need of employees of the insurer to even review your data anyway.

Concerns over access to data from the state, its agencies such as the police force, and through court orders are more worrying to some. Recent revelations about the extent of spying by intelligence agencies have led to new fears that telematics devices could be being tracked by intelligence agencies without even insurers knowing this is happening. As far as we are aware there have been no reports of this happening, but the nature of intelligence services is such that many won’t find this reassuring. However it should be noted that any data that can be gained from telematics about your whereabouts is likely to be less useful to intelligence services than location data that can be gathered from your smartphone. If you’re already carrying a smartphone with you whenever you drive, there’s no reason to fear that you’re handing over more data than before by taking out a telematics policy. Similarly many roads are already monitored in other ways, such as smart CCTV systems that can read licence plates.

While telematics has privacy implications, many of these appear greater at first glance than in reality. With individual insurance policies there is no obligation to take out telematics policies other than the potential savings in premiums. Data is secure against most common privacy concerns. It’s likely that usage of data from telematics will be more tightly regulated in future to address most of the current privacy concerns, especially regarding fleet telematics.

Breaches of privacy are one of the main worries of the telematics industry as they have the potential to damage the take up of devices, hence companies involved are very keen to protect users privacy and have invested in state of the art data security solutions.

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Robert Prime launched telematics.com in early 2013 and has over 10 years experience in the financial sector. He specialises in business startups and online marketing with a passion for new technology.