By Daniel Nazar
As a nation, America lacks strong privacy protections. While we live in a country proud of its constitutionally guaranteed rights, it wasn’t clear until the 2003 Lawrence decision that privacy was protected enough to prevent states from criminalizing some forms of consensual sex in the privacy of your own home. Even after Lawrence, some conservatives still argue that a constitutional privacy protection “doesn’t exist” at all, a view shared by some sitting Supreme Court justices.
While this topic has been of critical importance in the gay rights debate, a lack of strong privacy protections for individuals can potentially cause far more widespread intrusion into people’s lives as technology enables new ways to track people’s movements and activities. Some courts are handling this in the criminal context by protecting records of your movement, deeming seizure of your cell phone records without a warrant to be a Fourth Amendment violation… but what happens when the information is provided voluntarily, or to people other than the government?
Wired Magazine recently highlighted a new iPhone app called “DriveMeCrazy”, which lets people anonymously complain about the way you drive. All a complainer needs to do is enter your license plate number and their complaint, and the information is anonymously forwarded to both the DMV and your insurance company automatically. Worse, there’s nothing you can do to contest or remove complaints. To even find out if complaints were made against you at all, you have to get the app and register yourself, a process which logs the date, time, and location of your registration.
The most disturbing part is that each complaint logs the date, time, and location of each alleged “violation”. People can also leave compliments, which include the location of where the “good” behavior occurred, too. Currently they state that only “bad” reports are forwarded to the DMV, but the app still ultimately creates a database on where you were and when, whether naughty or nice.
The app’s creator says he sees no privacy problems and wants to “end” automotive anonymity. He’s also eager to start collecting profits on this by selling access to this database as it grows larger. With no privacy checks in place, this app could put your entire driving history on sale. In fact, it’s already enabling this now; from the website’s own FAQ, one perk of registering is being able to monitor your own driving record or even that of others (such as your spouse or kids) by using the “Follow” feature. And there are no apparent limits on who this data could ultimately be sold to. If private insurance companies could buy access to this info, then what’s to stop sales to the state police or the FBI (or, for that matter, an employer curious where you go when you’re not at work)?
Wired’s write-up on the app also notes that there are no limits to what kind of reports people can make, but their examples (such as finding a bumper sticker “offensive”) are still benign compared to this app’s true potential. Given the number of protests against adult stores still occurring nationwide, for example, this would enable an easy and frightening form of protest. Even a single pastor encouraging his congregation to “complain” about people visiting adult stores by their license plates could trigger a flood of reports from a congregation of thousands. Since your spouse or parents can easily “Follow” you to see complaints against you, this app would suddenly start advertising to the world what until now has been a fairly private business transaction, without any way for you to contest or remove the complaint.
Given the enormous potential for privacy violations, you might want to opt out of this service entirely, but unfortunately the app won’t let you. From the site’s FAQ: “Anybody, registered or not, can be flagged by others as either a bad or a good driver.” If you register, you can delete your account, but it doesn’t delete your history or prevent people from continuing to report you: “However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get flagged anymore by fellow motorists (whether you’re a bad or good driver).” The FAQ’s privacy section seems purely concerned about protecting the privacy and anonymity of complainers, who are promised that their identity will never be revealed.
Technology is rapidly shrinking the world, and as the DriveMeCrazy app demonstrates, there are those eager to track you remotely and sell the tracking data for a profit. Without stronger privacy protections for individuals, both against the government and corporations, digital tracking services like this are capable of quickly eradicating what privacy individual citizens still have.