While driverless vehicles are yet to appear on Canadian roads, more and more passenger cars come off the lot already “connected,” allowing parents to monitor and control teen drivers and employers to monitor employee driving habits. In addition, small gadgets can be attached to a car to allow for remote monitoring and, in some cases, remote control.

For more information and general tips about the Internet of Things and smart devices, see our Overview Document.

Driverless Cars

Some car manufacturers, rideshare services, and cargo delivery businesses are touting the future of self-driving cars. These cars combine a wide variety of sensors and systems that navigate a vehicle through city traffic and on long stretches of highway. In almost all cases, the cars still require a person to be present in the driver’s seat to take over if there is a problem. Many cars on the road today already include basic computer-assisted features where a computer assists the driver with a function, such as automatically engaging the brakes.

Connected Cars

Several services on the market today are designed to monitor and control the driving decisions of employees and teen drivers. These services are used to track driving habits and location and then deliver the information via an electronic report or with real-time updates. Options to control a car remotely or through pre-set limits include limiting car speed and audio volume or blocking texts or app alerts from reaching a teen’s phone while driving. These could also be misused by a perpetrator to control a woman’s vehicle.

A limited number of vehicles come with these services built-in, while many others work by plugging in a small device to the onboard diagnostics (OBD) port. The OBD system is a part of the car that many drivers aren’t aware of – it’s a computer that can monitor emissions, mileage, speed, and other data. Some available apps also bypass the need for a plug-in device by using the driver’s smartphone to gather and send information and block incoming messages.

Safety and Privacy Risks

The primary safety risk with connected cars is the possibility of remote control of the car. The most extreme risk would be crashing a car by taking over control of steering, braking, or acceleration. Other serious risks include taking control of the stereo volume, lights, horn, windshield wipers, and other features that could distract or disturb a driver and lead to accidents. Hackers have demonstrated that it is possible to hijack control of all of those features in cars currently on the streets.

Privacy risks stem from tracking and sharing information about driving habits and location. Built-in, plug-in, and smartphone apps can all share information with someone remotely, providing the opportunity for monitoring and control. Manufacturers also store information collected from vehicles, which can pose a privacy risk related to unauthorized access.

Benefits of Connected and Smart Devices

While the risks of connected cars are deeply troubling, there are ways that the technology can be used strategically to increase safety. A woman who is concerned about the location of a car or its passengers could use these features for reassurance or direct emergency services in case of theft or abduction. A woman could also choose to share her location with trusted friends or family. Finally, a perpetrator’s movements or driving habits could be used as evidence.

Questions about IoT Devices

When considering purchasing connected cars, devices to plug into cars, or apps, there are a few questions to consider:

  • Does that particular device need to be “smart” or “connected”?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
  • How secure are the device and the app that runs it?
  • Are there features that allow the user to individualize and increase privacy and security?

Strategies to Increase Privacy and Safety

Steps to increase privacy and safety include learning about the built-in security options, turning off features when not in use, and changing the default passwords or other security settings.

If you suspect that a device is being misused, you can begin to document the incidents. Our Technology-Facilitated Violence Log is one way to document each occurrence. These logs can be helpful in revealing patterns and determining next steps, and may potentially be useful in building a case if you choose to involve the legal system.

You may also try to access evidence through the device, or the app or website that controls it. You can also try to reach out to the manufacturer to regain control over a device or the account associated with it. With these devices and others, it is also important to take steps to increase network and Wi-Fi security. For more information, see our handout on Wi-Fi security.

Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) is part of a continuum of violence that can be both online and in-person. If you or someone you know is experiencing TFGBV, you are not alone. You can use sheltersafe.ca to find a shelter/transition house near you to discuss options and create a safety planYou don’t need to stay in a shelter to access free, confidential services and support.

Adapted for Canada with permission from NNEDV’s Safety Net project, based on their resource Connected Cars and Driverless Vehicles Safety and Privacy Concerns.

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