How to Clean Your Car in the Digital Age

By: Bridget Clerkin October 23, 2018
Selling your car? Besides washing the exterior, you’re also going to want to scrub its computer of your personal data.
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An old piece of advice warns that you don’t really know someone until you travel with them. If that’s truly the case, who should know us better than the machines designed to take us places?

Cars have always been extremely personal spaces: a place where we can find our stuff, if not find ourselves. Filled to the brim with the music, friends, family, food, gym bags, cat hair, dog toys, baby seats, school books, candy wrappers, and other artifacts that we compile throughout our days, they reveal a microcosm of a driver’s private world and the exact way he or she likes to live in it.

But in the modern age, automobiles no longer passively collect the hints of a driver’s personality—they fastidiously mine for them.

The nation’s growing fleet of connected cars are increasingly tracking our personal data, including our comings and goings.

Average vehicles produced today are nearly just as much computer as driving machine, capable of logging anything from how fast a driver goes to how hard they brake and how much fuel they consume.

There are at least 78 million cars on the road currently that are capable of relaying such information, and that number could reach 500 million by 2022.

Combined with other powerful tools like Bluetooth and GPS, the autos can surmise a surprising amount about us, as well—including where we like to shop, what we like to listen to, the current weather on our street, whether (and how often) we wear our seat belts, what we like to eat, and even if we’ve lost or gained weight.

There are currently at least 78 million cars on the road that are capable of relaying such information, and according to analyst firm ABI Research, that number will reach 500 million by 2022.

Where all that data gets funneled—and who has the right to access it—is a question of ongoing debate. But one place it definitively shouldn’t go to is in the hands of the vehicle’s next owner.

If you’re selling your car in the digital age, it’s just as important to wipe out its memory as it is to wipe off the dashboard or wax the paint.

Leftover data points can act as breadcrumbs, leading new owners to a trove of your personal information and, if they’re especially perfidious, the risk of identity theft.

Still, it’s easy to avoid such pitfalls—you just have to add a few more items to your selling-a-car checklist.

Keep reading to see which areas of your vehicle need a thorough digital scrubbing before you hand over the keys.

Phone Contacts

If you’ve ever synced your phone with your vehicle, this area is especially one you should look out for.

Bluetooth and many infotainment systems will store all your personal contacts in the auto’s digital memory. While this may make life more convenient while you’re using the car, it can also conveniently hand over private information about your friends, family, and associates to anyone taking the vehicle off your hands.

Check out your car’s specific owner’s manual to find out how to delete these details from its database.

Address Book

If you wouldn’t want a stranger to call one of your personal contacts, you most likely wouldn’t want them to show up to their house, either.

Double-check your car’s saved info against your phone’s to ensure it’s wiped clean of this data, as well.

Mobile Apps

Many of these programs will save your passwords and store other personal information.

Many new vehicle systems will allow you to surf the web or utilize apps from behind the wheel. And again, for the sake of convenience, many of these programs will save your passwords and store other personal information to quickly and safely offer access to them while you’re driving.

Make sure to log out of any applications you may have downloaded and double-check that your password isn’t saved. Or better yet, delete the apps altogether.

Consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual or specific app websites to ensure you’ve completed the process and that the next owner won’t get to log in anywhere under your name.

Location Data

If your vehicle has a built-in GPS, make sure to sweep it clean of your history. The application could literally lead a new owner directly to you—or other places you frequent.

Make sure to clear out any addresses you may have searched for that you wouldn’t want a stranger showing up to, and get rid of any preferred routes you use.

At the very least, deleting this information can keep one less driver from discovering any secret shortcuts you may have discovered.

Personal Passwords or Codes

Some vehicle applications may offer the opportunity for drivers to store passwords or codes—including those needed to disarm a security alarm or get into a garage.

While they offer a lovely failsafe function for a forgetful vehicle owner, they could represent a dangerous overshare once a car—and its driver—are no longer in need of those numbers.

Again, check your owner’s manual to see where these data points can be stored, and make sure they’re no longer there when the car is ready for its new owner.

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