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European Union Sets Scary Precedent for Autonomous Cars

By: Bridget Clerkin December 14, 2018
Car manufacturers in the EU now get to claim copyright protection of data their self-driving cars produce.
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As is so often the case in politics, the driest of language can spark the hottest of debates. And it just happened again in Europe, this time with self-driving car regulations acting as the kindling.

What was set to be just another workaday vote turned into an extraordinary legislative session earlier this month when a political faction within the EU’s European Parliament held up the passage of a singular clause in the raft of self-driving rules.

Vehicle manufacturers would legally own all manner of data, from where you are, to where you’re going, to where you’ve been—and where you’ve stopped, what you’ve done, and who you’ve talked to in between.

The language in question would likely not even rouse the suspicions of the savviest insider: a dry-as-toast clarification that the data collected by self-driving cars is “automatically generated” and therefore “by nature not creative, thus making copyright protection…inapplicable.”

But those who were reading between the legislative lines saw a huge financial opportunity—and took it.

Without the definition in place, the data could indeed become subject to copyright law, meaning the companies that own autonomous vehicles could stake a claim on any information generated by—or about—their riders.

Vehicle manufacturers would legally own all manner of data, from where you are, to where you’re going, to where you’ve been—and where you’ve stopped, what you’ve done, and who you’ve talked to in between.

Passengers would conceivably be left out of the loop, possibly blocked from obtaining their own personal details and certainly unable to lay any legal claims.

Not even the enterprising U.S. has gone so far to commercialize the byproduct of the cars’ computations—but the European vote sets a precedent that could soon leap over the Atlantic.

And the ramifications could be enormous for society.

What Could Happen?

SelfDrivingData

At stake is the long list of “telemetric” data generated by a self-driving car.

Some factoids may seem just as boring as the name suggests: like spelling out all the conceivable logistics of a trip, from a vehicle’s speed, to its interior temperature, to how and when the brakes are used to precise GPS location.

But many tidbits are much more personal.

Sensor-soaked smart cars are now able to detect an incredible breadth of intimate details, up to and including a rider’s heart rate, weight, and line of vision. Newer models are also beginning to pick up on biometric identifiers with fingertip readers and facial scans.

And outside of the physical body, any app used, song played, phone call made, or data consumed within the confines of the auto could be up for grabs.

All told, the bundle of facts and figures adds up to an extremely informed portrait of a day in the life of a rider—and the Big Data industry is already licking its collective chops at the venerable information buffet.

With legal right to the telemetric recordings, vehicle manufacturers can package the nearly infinite details in any number of ways and sell the information to the highest bidder. In 2012 alone, the online data broker industry profited $462 million from the sale of personal data. This number represents only a sliver of the industry, which has certainly grown in the past 6 years.

Yet the copyright tactic also raises a number of safety concerns.

Despite the self-confident proclamations of the self driving car manufacturers, self-driving cars are still very much in the beta phase, and the river of logistical and technical information the autos generate in the lead-up to a crash is crucial for identifying and eradicating problems.

If the EU’s regulations would have passed as planned, that information would have entered into the public domain. Instead, with manufacturers able to claim copyright privileges, the data becomes the personal property of the companies, which can then choose whether or not to disseminate any crash-related information—or any information at all.

Is the U.S. Next?

The data privatization movement for autonomous cars hasn’t quite manifested on American soil yet, but the seeds for it have been planted—and in some cases, quite literally.

Farm equipment company John Deere took a similar tact in 2015 when it filed a motion with the U.S. Copyright Office claiming ownership over any and all data generated by its tractors, arguing that the figures were byproducts of the software designed—and owned—by the company.

With Europe as a guiding light abroad and John Deere plowing the way at home, savvy U.S. automakers could easily play many of the same technical tricks when rolling out their self-driving models.

But the manufacturer didn’t stop there. Once it locked down its legal leverage over the information, the company locked out farmers from accessing it, then doubled down by forcing users of the equipment to have any repairs performed by John Deere—where services often come days after a malfunction and at exorbitant prices.

And the data itself has proven fertile ground for the company’s finances, with a suite of sensors capable of recording everything from soil conditions to humidity levels, which could be sold to Wall Street traders with stock in any number of crops. (Conversely, many farmers have worried that a vengeful company could give their data to the Environmental Protection Agency, where it could be combed for regulatory violations.)

While farmers won the temporary right to circumnavigate the digital block, the reprieve is not permanent, and the legal infrastructure allowing for the business move is still very much in place.

With Europe as a guiding light abroad and John Deere plowing the way at home, savvy automakers could easily play many of the same technical tricks when rolling out their self-driving models—giving the population even less autonomy over their personal details.

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