GPS seen as threat to privacy

Posted Aug. 13, 2010, at 9:15 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Those handy GPS devices that help you find a restaurant while driving around on vacation can also be used to track your car wherever it goes. Who has access to that tracking ability is of growing concern to state officials in the wake of a query by a finance company to put GPS devices in vehicles it finances.

The State Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection confirmed that it recently received a query from an out of state finance company about placing GPS devices in financed vehicles.

“We were asked by an out of state lawyer representing an auto finance company whether we would object to installation of GPS units on cars that serve as collateral,” bureau of consumer credit protection superintendent Will Lund said last week. He said the purpose cited by the lawyer was for the secondary finance market for car loans to help determine whether a loan contract was a good credit risk for the finance company.

It would work like this:

A purchaser whose financing was handled by a company that planned to sell the loan to the secondary market would have a GPS device installed in the vehicle as a condition of completing the purchase. Data from the GPS would accrue during the weeks or months between the purchase and the sale of the loan to the secondary market.

Lund said the lawyer stated the data from the device would help determine whether a person was working by analyzing the person’s travel pattern. He said it is based on the current use of GPS devices to track commercial vehicles and rental cars, which is widespread in both of those industries.

“I foresee a fairly small step from that to a more immediate situation in which the owners of the contracts are keeping an eye on the activities of a consumer,” Lund said.

In an e-mail to the lawyer, Lund said he could not find any authority of his office to block the use of GPS devices. The name of the lawyer and the finance company he represents was redacted in the e-mails released by Lund because it was not an official request for a ruling.

“While I am uncomfortable ‘blessing’ the GPS program,” Lund wrote, “I am unable to find a law within the Consumer Credit Code that would be violated by its use.”

The lawyer argued that a consumer “may waive whatever rights they may have to privacy” and said it happens all the time in commerce. He gave visiting a doctor’s office as an example. But Lund responded disclosure of the device being placed in their vehicle would not really protect consumers if it became regular practice to require the devices in order to finance the purchase of a car or truck.

“It’s one thing to track a driver using a company-owned vehicle or a rental car customer,” he wrote. “It may be another thing, from a privacy perspective, to put this technology on collateral owned by consumers.”

Attorney General Janet Mills agreed. She was not aware of the e-mail exchange, but she said there are privacy interests and privacy protections outside of the consumer credit code.

“I am just hearing about this, but I think we have to look at other state laws that may apply, like the unfair practices statutes,” she said.

Mills said she is very concerned about a “slippery slope” of the use of the data collected by the devices for other purposes. She said the travel patterns of an individual could reveal far more about them than simply their daily commute to work.

“What protections would there be to protect this data from being sold for other purposes once it is collected for this purpose,” Mills said. “Where will this all end?”

That question is also on the mind of Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee. She is reminded of George Orwell’s novel “1984” where there is a pervasive surveillance of citizens by government.

“It’s 1984 in the year 2010,” she said. “I think we are all going to be fooling ourselves if we believe these finance companies are simply going to be using this for financing.”

Schneider said the marketing information that would be gained from the data is “invaluable” and would be a treasure trove for marketers.

“I can see getting a flier in the mail trying to sell me something at a store that just happens to be on my way to work,” she said.

Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, the GOP senator on the panel, said when data is collected anonymously he has no concerns, but when it is individually identifiable, he sees it as intruding on a person’s privacy.

“When it comes to protecting one’s privacy rights, we should err on the side of privacy,” he said. “This is another example of changes in technology moving somewhat faster than our minds can gather in what the implications are.”

The Maine Civil Liberties Union is also upset at the possible erosion of privacy rights by use of such monitoring devices. Executive Director Shenna Bellows warned people have to be vigilant to protect their privacy, or they will find it slipping away.

“Each of us, as consumers, need to be increasingly vigilant about companies that actively monitor our movements whether it is on the Internet or our purchasing habits,” she said. “Or in this case, apparently, where our car is parked.”

Schneider expects there will be legislation in the next session that will address the growing privacy concerns triggered by the increasing number of ways privacy is being eroded. Rector agrees.

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