The Spy in Your Car – He’s Always There

Last Updated on August 21, 2020 by

What Does He See? Who Does He Tell?

spy in your car

There’s a spy in your car.

You already knew that Facebook knows far too much about you. And you already knew that retail stores track your every move. In addition, hackers have stolen location data of individual cellphone users.

However – perhaps you thought you were safe, alone in your car…

Sorry, it’s no longer true. You can’t see the spy but he’s always there. He knows where your car is and where it goes. He shares this information with his friends in the cloud(s).

In the future, the spy in your car will be watching inside the vehicle too. He will know who’s driving and who’s a passenger. He will see when you’re tired or distracted and take appropriate action. Soon he will read your mood and that of your passengers. He will know everything that goes on in your private mobile world.

Today’s blog covers:

  • Where the spy in your car came from.
  • Where this technology is headed.
  • And what, if anything, you can do about it.

The First Spy in Your Car

spy in your car

It wasn’t always this way. If you were born before 1980, you can remember when your car was a haven of complete privacy. A place to get away from everyone, if you so wished.

But things changed.

Full-time vehicular spying began in 1986 with a system called LoJack. LoJack wasn’t in every car. It was a system you had to buy and install. If your car was stolen, you could send a radio command to wake up its LoJack transmitter. The transmitter would broadcast its location to law enforcement until they caught the perp and recovered your car.

The spy in your car became standard equipment with the OnStar system developed by General Motors, Electronic Data Systems and Hughes Electronics. It arrived in 1997 Cadillacs, then other GM vehicles, then other nameplates under licensing agreements. Other manufacturers followed with their own spy in your car installations. For example: Ford has SYNC; Chrysler has Uconnect; BMW has ConnectedDrive; Mercedes has mbrace.

Of course, OnStar and the others do not advertise their systems as “the spy in your car.” Instead, they promise safety, security and convenience to the vehicle owner. These installations provide vehicle diagnostics, communications, routing, emergency assistance, 911 notification in a collision, and remote ignition control. In case a vehicle is stolen, the more advanced of these systems can track its location, reduce its speed and prevent it from starting once the engine stops.

Evolving Capabilities of the Spy in Your Car

Car makers only gradually offered the many functions described above. Each addition provided more amenities to the vehicle owner and an opportunity to up-sell options during purchase of a car. And the march of technology never ceased. Today we are seeing even more new system capabilities:

            Recognizing the Car Owner

  • Many cars already offer video cameras providing the driver a 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings. Cameras in the newest cars will now feed an artificial intelligence (A.I.) module with face recognition. The A.I. will learn to recognize the car owner and other authorized users. That will permit your face to unlock your car and start its engine, even if you don’t have a key with you.
  • To prevent spoofing the car with a photo of the owner’s face, Jaguar Land Rover will verify the owner’s identity by analyzing video to recognize his or her walking gait.

            Surveillance Inside the Vehicle

  • Microphones and additional videocams monitor what’s going on inside the car. They will monitor and recognize the driver and the passengers. Some new systems may allow a car owner to remotely spy on who may be in his car and what they are doing.
  • Existing systems look at speed, braking and steering to sense when a driver may be fatigued. The newest A.I. systems will also watch the driver’s posture, eye motion and body movement for signs of exhaustion or distraction. Danger signals will trigger a series of escalating responses to alert the driver or even slow down the car for safety.

            Mood and Situation Assessment

spy in your car

The fatigue and distraction that video reveals are only two special cases of driver mood and physical state. The A.I. can perform further analysis for clues to the driver’s state of mind and to assess the situation inside the vehicle. We may anticipate both optimistic and pessimistic outcomes:


  • #1 Crime Prevention: The A.I. may determine that an occupant of the car poses a danger to himself or to other passengers. For example, the A.I. may diagnose a carjacking or assault in progress. Voice stress analysis, despite its shaky legal basis, could help the A.I. determine the level of threat or potential violence. Then the A.I. could notify law enforcement, broadcast audio and video to them, and even stop a moving vehicle.
  • #2 Emergency Rescue: If a car is in a collision that deploys air bags, certainly the A.I. will call for help. But what about a gentler mishap, such as driving into a lake? Here also, the A.I.’s situation assessment can lead to a 911 emergency call.
  • #3 Friendly Witness: An A.I. who monitors the outside of your car can serve as an honest witness in case of a parking lot fender-bender. And can defend you from extortion by a scammer who pretends that your vehicle hit him as you backed up.


  • #1 Loss of Privacy: Sometimes we may not welcome a well-intended A.I. as the spy in our car. What if there’s a romantic interlude occurring? How can the A.I. know whether the event is consensual or not? For that matter, even if it’s consensual, do the ages of the participants decree that it’s a statutory assault? Does the car owner have the ability to shut off the surveillance? If so, what keeps a carjacker from requiring the owner to do so?
  • #2 Threat of a Hack: The mere presence of all this personal data invites its theft, as Customs and Border Patrol has recently learned. You would not like a hacker to take control of the spy in your car. The result might be a disabled car, a car out of control at high speed, or threats to expose information you want to keep private.
  • #3 Murphy’s Law: Self-driving cars have been plagued by some dramatic accidents. These occurred because the owner assumed more capability than the car possessed, and/or because the car encountered a situation that its sensors could not properly assess. As more and more complex A.I. software controls the spy in your car, the more we may expect Murphy’s Law to cause an undesired outcome.

The Future of the Spies in Your Life

This blog treats the spy in your car. However, videocams abound in many major cities. Moreover, governments are using A.I. face recognition to track and control their citizens. Thus there are already many spies in our lives, not just those in our vehicles.

The field of A.I. presents many ethical questions, as we have previously discussed. A.I. ethics is the subject of intense discussions by academics and by A.I. practitioners. Nevertheless, A.I. is yet one more technology that is moving faster than we can understand and control it.

How Can You Control the Spy in Your Car?

This is the section where you, the reader, deserve some practical guidance. A way to keep private at least a little of your personal business.

I may disappoint you here. Technology forces a devil’s bargain, and you will not find the available options to be very satisfying. However, here they are:

            1. Go Off the Grid

We can’t roll back the calendar, and we’re unlikely to move to a permanently backward country. So the only way to stop the leakage of our personal information is to disconnect from the digital world.

This is an extreme solution, suitable only for the obsessively private, rugged loner. The sort who might have a survival cabin in the hills.

There are people who do try to go off the grid. They can find compatriots and advice online. Of course, they will survey these resources using an anonymous browser window, so that they can’t be traced!

I assume that such people live using cash, never credit. Perhaps they earn a living as a handyman, construction worker or drug dealer. If this is your path, I am not qualified to advise you.

            2. Say “No” When We Can

You don’t have to go all the way into hiding. It’s possible to say “no” to some technological intrusions without becoming a total hermit and renegade.

Where the spy in your car is concerned, we can make some choices for greater privacy:

  • Don’t activate OnStar, Ford SYNC or any similar in-vehicle services. A mobile phone already gives you route guidance, internet access and emergency communications. You don’t really need the few extra services the vehicle offers. Because accepting those services gives the vehicle manufacturer permission to collect all of your vehicle sensor data, you might want to say “no” to those services.
  • Never sync your mobile phone to your vehicle. Because if you do, the vehicle will have access to your address book, and perhaps even more of the info in your phone.
  • Or, drive a car built before 2008!

            3. Find Ways To Be Anonymous

Apart from the spy in your car, there are other ways you can be anonymous, and thereby protect your personal data:

  • When you browse the Internet, avoid leaving your footprints as much as you can. A Google search on “how to surf anonymously” tells you what your browser can do to protect you (not much) and how you can avoid being identified by the sites you visit.
  • Your social media accounts are not very secure. Therefore, you should not populate them with accurate personal information. Not your true birthday, not your physical address, nor your parent’s or pet’s names.
  • Search “how to be anonymous” on Google and read a few articles. You’ll quickly decide how much trouble you are willing to go to, to protect your personal data.

The Sad Truth About Personal Privacy

spy in your car – eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty

All of the options discussed above are desperation moves.

Here is the problem: If we want modern services and safety features, we can’t avoid the collection of a great deal of our personal data. And along with the benefits come the downsides (see Pessimistic above). The best we can do is to install only the apps that we really need and want, and that we consider to be worth the risks.

If it brings any consolation, scientists are actively working to establish limits on data collection. They are striving for A.I. “fairness” and for the adoption of socially responsible ethical guidelines.

Technology has brought much comfort and joy to many lives. However, it is a two-edged sword. When someone offers you a new app or new feature, you must always consider: what are its disadvantages? What will I lose?

This is one more instance where eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Are you on good terms with the spy in your car? Do you know how far your data travels? Does each of your apps provide convenience or safety features that compensate for your loss of privacy and the risk of a hack?

Image Credits:
– Eye by Msporch on
– From camera in mirror by Juliano Ferreira; forced perspective by Matheus Bertelli; man & woman in car by mentatdgt; camera lens by Steve Johnson
Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty, courtesy of Library of Congress


The Spy in Your Car – He’s Always There — 3 Comments

  1. For Better Security, Ditch Your PC? Today a blog from Fortune caught my eye: The author (Jeff John Roberts) argues that Apple’s conscientious attention to security is an important reason to favor Apple products to many others, despite their higher price. So perhaps hugging Apple is one more reason to protect yourself from hackers.

    While I was at HRL I switched back and forth between PC and Mac approximately every five years, to maintain a better understanding of both worlds. I eventually settled on Mac and have stayed there in retirement. (Nola for her own reasons uses a PC, which helps keep me on my toes.)

  2. There is increasingly, of course, an equivalent “spy in your home” with the advent in the past decade of home-based devices that you can talk to. It can to some extent control what is going on in your house (lights, etc) and increasingly is taking on home security functions. The “Big 3” in the consumer-facing technical world are heavily involved in the creation and growth of this capability — Amazon, Google, and Apple. These devices have all the same tradeoffs as those in your car, but the difference is that you have the power to decide whether you wish to deploy them in your life, and can “opt out” without difficulty by simply not buying them. That said, they are very useful and I have chosen to have them in my home in spite of my deep reservations about how they can possibly be exploited and/or used against me.

    One question about the “car spy” aspect of this article — long before OnStar or other “visible” services for cars that a consumer could interact with, there was a sensor that was embedded in all modern cars that captured and saved information about the car’s performance. The data from these sensors has been subpoenaed in various court cases to determine what was happening with a car right before or during some kind of accident. The sensor’s data was not immediately accessible to the car’s owner and was not optional, but instead built into the car (serving to some extent as the “black box” for vehicles, similar to commercial aircraft). Is this sensor included in your article as part of the “spy in your car” or is this a different sensor with a more limited purpose and a different set of tradeoffs between usefulness and privacy?

    • Hi Charles, and thanks for your comment!

      Yes, there’s a also a “spy in your home” which can be another source of concern. The more functions it has, the more convenience it delivers to you, but also the more risk of malfunction or mischief. Think of systems with video, voice control, smartphone control, control through a website. Each additional feature brings with it risks of misuse.

      Your other comment relates to the Event Data Recorder. EDRs have been in motor vehicles since 1974 and NHTSA now requires them in all new vehicles. Using OnStar as an example, the vehicle has an element called the Sensing Diagnostic Module, of which the EDR is a part. The SDM collects data from all the vehicle’s sensors and feeds various parts of it to the EDR and to OnStar. The EDR must meet certain NHTSA requirements but in general, has very limited storage capacity. For example, it might record many factors of vehicle operation but only for a total of two minutes. In case of airbag deployment or a major accident, the EDR would stop recording and retain that information to assist in later accident analysis. In contrast, OnStar sends its sensor information to the OnStar servers via the cellphone network. That information is subject to fewer controls, and may be retained indefinitely.

      Thus EDR and systems like OnStar both qualify as “spies in your car.” But they have different sensor coverage, storage capacity, data retention times and controls over the ability to access the data. There’s additional information here:,,