The first Tesla Model S theft in Canada results in a quick capture of the thief, thanks to technology built into the car. The car’s owner had been at a concert with a friend, but found the car missing when they returned. Using a smart phone app for the car they were able to easily track its location. They then called the police and by giving them real time location data, the police were able to set up a trap and quickly capture the thief.
That’s cool news, right? Tesla Motors designed the car to have real time tracking capability so it can be quickly corralled by Police to capture a thief. Further, the car owners debated calling Tesla Motors and asking them to remotely shut off the motor, which might have made it even easier to capture the thief or at least recover the car. (Source: “The Province” in Vancouver)
This definitely demonstrates that Tesla Motors thought through lots of possible scenarios, designed the car to with beneficial features. Good on Tesla for doing this, and it should make people want Tesla’s cars even more.
But – is that the only way to interpret this story?
No, it’s not. We have to contemplate not only the beneficial ways a technology can be used, and the harmful ways it can be used.
One issue is the risk presented by the Tesla keyfob. The car’s owners had bought a spare keyfob which they’d left in the car. That meant the car automatically unlocked itself as the thief approached, and let the thief just drive away with no need for anything difficult like lockpicking or hotwiring skills. That’s what let the car be stolen in the first place, the car’s owner was silly enough to leave the key in the car. I’ve done that – left my car parked by the sidewalk, with the key in the door, and the next morning after searching for the keys sheepishly finding them in the car door that fortunately hadn’t been stolen by any random passerby.
That’s an innocent mistake – “Honey, what do we do with the spare keyfob”? Leaving it in the car seems like an honestly simple decision, resulting in an easily stolen car. This isn’t just Tesla at fault – the Kia Soul EV keyfob has similar behavior.
The big issue however is the remote tracking and remote control capabilities. Can’t that be misused?
This sort of feature will be more often a standard feature of cars. The car companies recognize that with the technology trend in front of us, the customer base will increasingly expect a programmable computer screen in the dashboard giving real time data and information. We get that kind of service from our phones, so why not our cars, and eventually the refrigerators and more.
Yes, that means in the future this sort of story – car is stolen, and thief quickly caught using remote tracking – will become commonplace. But what else can remote tracking and remote control mean?
Would remote tracking or remote control be limited to legitimate uses?
Since the government spy agencies are demanding all kinds of information about our cell phone usage, in the name of catching supposed terrorists, wouldn’t government spy agencies also want to know where we drive?
For example – an argument could be made that cell phone and car tracking of Timothy McVeigh could have detected patterns of behavior which could have prevented the Oklahoma City bombing. That’s exactly the sort of argument made back in 2002 when the Department of Defense was justifying the Total Information Awareness project which got repurposed into the current system of ubiquitous spying upon us all. (a.k.a. the Edward Snowden revelations)
The TIA project (later renamed Terrorist Information Awareness project) was the first large scale application of data mining. The project was launched with the GW Bush administration, before Sept 11 2001, and headed up by Admiral Poindexter (who’d previously been convicted for lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra affair). It meant that government spy’s were already experimenting, when the 9/11 attack occurred, with tracking all information about everybody in order to detect suspicious patterns and hopefully catch wrongdoers before committing any crime.
Take that sort of thinking – that algorithms could predict future crimes – and fast forward to modern times. Data Science is a big industry now. Predictive information tracking allows online merchants and advertising brokers and social networks to customize the user experience of websites. How does amazon.com or youtube.com know what products or videos to recommend? How is Facebook able to present ads related to searches you did on other websites? It’s by tracking what you do everywhere you go, and doing queries on your recent actions, and therefore presenting to you things related to those recent actions.
Put modern data science technology in the hands of a government agency, however, and what do you get? Police or spy agencies that want to know every bit of data about every person — especially tracking everyone’s movements — and using that data to predict illegal activities.
What could go wrong? And, isn’t this an example of Big Brother?
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